World Rugby have insisted their new plans for a “Nations Championship or Cup” are “for the many, not the few” despite critics suggesting that it will block the progress of emerging nations.
The sport’s governing body have unveiled a new global calendar that will include the creation of a new, two-tier competition in 2026.
The top tier will include the four Rugby Championship teams, the Six Nations and two more sides yet to be confirmed but expected to be Japan and Fiji.
Below this will sit a second tier of a further 12 teams, with the earliest that one of those dozen could feature in the top tier being 2032.
And World Rugby insist that the “certainty and opportunity” that regular fixtures against peers will provide is where the real opportunities for development exist.
“If rugby is to become a truly global sport, we simply have to make it more relevant and more accessible to more people around the world,” said Bill Beaumont, chairman of World Rugby.
“A new era is about to begin for our sport. An era that will bring certainty and opportunity for all. An era that will support the many, not the few and an era that will supercharge the development of the sport beyond its traditional and often self-imposed boundaries. All boats will rise together.”
Alan Gilpin, chief executive, added: “There is more certainty for more nations as a result of today’s decisions than there has ever been. It is not perfect. Would we all like relegation and promotion and pathways in these competitions to start sooner in some cases than they are? Absolutely.
“But those compromises allow for that type of pathway, that type of relegation to take place in the foreseeable future, rather than not in the foreseeable future, which is what the status quo provides. Is it perfect? Probably not. Is it a hell of a lot better than the current situation? Absolutely.”
The revamped calendar will not include a “Nations Championship” in years in which a men’s World Cup or British & Irish Lions tour will occur, in theory providing room for increased “crossover” fixtures.
World Rugby could not provide any clarity on what these fixtures will be, and admitted that no agreements had yet been put in place, though insisted that there will be a 50 per cent aggregate increase.
That would mean a rise from 18 to 27 games for the 12 teams, though it is unclear how these fixtures will be allocated or arranged.
Gilpin said: “I think what we say to the teams – Portugal, Chile, others that have had fantastic tournaments here – is this competition structure from 2026 will provide them with guaranteed certain schedules, particularly against their peers, which is actually the type of teams they need to be playing against, in July and November on an annual basis.
“In addition, the package that was agreed today provides for more crossover fixtures for what we used to call tier one and tier two fixtures in the years when this championship isn’t being played than is currently the case. So, 50 per cent more guaranteed crossover fixtures in those other years than is currently the case, in addition to guaranteed fixtures against their peers that they don’t currently have.
“This is about looking at other years – traditionally what we have called ‘Lions years’ and the Rugby World Cup years – and populating those periods with fixtures that allow those possibilities and that the high-performance unions agreeing that some of their Rugby World Cup warm-up matches have to be against those other teams.”
Bill Sweeney, chief executive of England’s Rugby Football Union (RFU), was later unclear on whether England would be open to touring or playing fixtures against emerging nations.
He did, however, confirm that talks were underway over a fixture between a resurrected England ‘A’ and Portugal after a standout tournament for Os Lobos.
“We’re all interested in growing the game globally,” Sweeney explained. “We saw Portugal here and Chile, they were great competitors. So we’re fully supportive of that. I think there’s a number of factors here that people should feel encouraged about in terms of emerging nations.”