World Rugby has abandoned its plans to launch a new Nations Championship competition after failing to get the necessary support for the project. World Rugby required unanimous backing from the ten nations who comprise the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship by 19 June 2019, however this was never achieved. Sports Shorts previously discussed the pros and cons of the proposal, but it appears that the concerns of some nations have collapsed the project just short of the try-line.

A missed opportunity?

World Rugby released a statement expressing their regret at the failure, stating “despite strong progress in collaboration with unions, competition owners and International Rugby Players, including full engagement on the detailed process of financial due diligence, a lack of consensus on key issues, particularly the timing and format of promotion and relegation, left World Rugby with no alternative but to discontinue the project.”

Seemingly, the final straw in the breakdown of the negotiations was the concept of relegation of top tier teams from the flagship competitions, with Six Nations unions such as Scotland and Ireland believed to be unconvinced on the sustainability and vibrancy of a second division, whilst the RFU commented that the commercial reality of relegation would be catastrophic.”

Notwithstanding such opposition, the expansion was backed by SANZAAR, the southern hemisphere’s rugby governing body, whose chairperson Brent Impey expressed, “The Nations Championship was a golden opportunity to grow the game internationally but is seemingly lost. SANZAAR remains convinced that such a revamped international calendar is the right course of action supported by professional cross-border competitions such as Super Rugby and the various European premierships.”

Future Investment

It will be interesting to see what direction World Rugby decides to go in, with critical investment choices being paramount to the continued evolution and expansion of the game. The Nations Championship had been given a 12-year, £6.1billion financial pledge by leading sports marketing agency Infront Sports and Media and its Hong Kong-based parent company Wanda Sports. World Rugby Chairman Sir Bill Beaumont said:

“World Rugby undertook this important project with the best interests of the global game at heart in line with our vision to grow the sport as a game for all.

While we are naturally disappointed that a unanimous position on the Nations Championship could not be achieved among our unions, we remain fully committed to exploring alternative ways to enhance the meaning, value and opportunity of international rugby for the betterment of all unions.

This includes our continued commitment to competition and investment opportunities for emerging nations to increase the competitiveness of the international game with a view to possible Rugby World Cup expansion in 2027.”

The field has opened up for external investors to become a major stakeholder in international rugby. Prospective financers include CVC Capital Partners, who have already made a £500million bid to acquire a 30% holding in the Six Nations. In what was termed ‘Project Light’, the Six Nations unions (England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy and France) were in discussions about the commercial expansion of the competition and the interest from CVC presents the most lucrative opportunity to develop international rugby’s oldest competition. This follows CVC’s comparable investment of £200million for a 27% shareholding in England’s Premiership Rugby in December 2018.

The challenge for World Rugby going forward is to ensure an equilibrium of opportunity for all international teams, maintaining the commercial viability of the sport for the advanced nations, whilst preventing smaller, developing nations being precluded from competing due to the lack of financial strength. We await the next blueprint from World Rugby as to how they strategise the continued commercial growth of the sport.