Last week the international rugby governing body World Rugby announced their intentions to launch a new structure to the rugby calendar, called The Nations Championship, starting in 2022. This restructure will function as an inclusive, merit based competition with promotion and relegation, which provides a pathway for all unions to get to the top. A Nations Championship Champion will be found through a play off system, which will take place during the Autumn International window. The system retains the traditional competitions of the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship, and also retains space for the Lions Tour and the Rugby World Cup, meaning that the Nations Championship will only run fully twice every four years.
In my opinion, this is a really positive step for rugby. It will make the Autumn Internationals far more exciting as teams will be playing for more than just bragging rights and the competition should be more attractive to newcomers, growing the game as a whole. Furthermore, the promotion and relegation system makes rugby a far more inclusive sport and provides a pathway for successful teams such as Georgia to aspire to play at the top table.
However, this announcement has been very controversial to many rugby fans, for a number of reasons. The first concern with this structure is for player welfare as Nations would be forced to play a series of back to back international fixtures, which are well known to take a significant toll on the body. This is of particular relevance to England and France where the club game holds more importance than anywhere in the world, so players will not be guaranteed adequate rest periods once they return from international duty.
The Nations Championship is clearly a financially motivated departure. Perhaps World Rugby are trying to arrest more control over the state of the game as a whole, by increasing the importance of international rugby over club rugby once more. World Rugby claim that the broadcast rights sold from the Nations Championship as well as sponsorship deals will raise revenue which will be used to support financially struggling Rugby Unions across the world. If this is the case, then it can only be seen as a positive for the game.
Another major criticism that has been levelled at this potential competition is that it may devalue the World Cup, which is currently the only competition able to properly decipher who the best team in the world is. With an international competition occurring every year, is there much point in the Rugby World Cup anymore? Well, in my opinion, yes. This competition is simply just a streamlined version of the current system. The best teams play each other every autumn anyway. World Rugby believe that it will not devalue the Rugby World Cup as the World Cup will be expanded and launched properly on the world stage by expanding to 24 teams in 2027, thereby making it further dissimilar to the Nations Championship and increasing the inclusivity of the game globally.