Brendan Fanning: ‘Global vision shows how little things have changed’

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Brendan Fanning: ‘Global vision shows how little things have changed’


'The idea of the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship countries - plus USA and Japan - having a season-long shindig with new TV money ending with semis and a final in the northern hemisphere took some beating for neck' (stock photo)
‘The idea of the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship countries – plus USA and Japan – having a season-long shindig with new TV money ending with semis and a final in the northern hemisphere took some beating for neck’ (stock photo)

When the debate was raging in this country about turfing non-Ireland qualified (NIQ) players to make way for home-growns, the Remainers, if we can call them that – those who wanted to keep unfeasible numbers of NIQs in place in the provincial sides – would lean for support on the development post. In which case, for example, it was marvellous to have Ruan Pienaar rolling over season after season in Ulster because of the wondrous effect on the local scrumhalves who could admire him from close range.

While it is always good business to have a role model on site – Leinster benefited hugely from Brad Thorn’s short burst in blue in 2011 – the only way you can learn about players is by letting them play. How they prepare off the field and how they train on it will give you a couple of signposts, but road-testing is where it’s at. The same is true for developing rugby nations as it is for players.

So it is appropriate that this World League proposal has been revealed in a World Cup year, and exploded before we get to the bag-packing stage for Japan. Two huge issues pull up at the front door of World Rugby’s HQ as if they have been circling the building: health and safety in a very dangerous game; and developing the number of high class Test nations beyond the handful who are the game’s anchor tenants.

The first World Cup, in 1987 in New Zealand, was treated with great suspicion by devotee amateurs. By 1991, however, it had begun to catch on. And by 1995 it had delivered one of sport’s – never mind rugby’s – most iconic images with Nelson Mandela presenting the Webb Ellis Cup to Francois Pienaar. Terrific.

Japan this autumn will be the ninth staging of the tournament, the first time in Asia. On the face of it, a whole new departure from a game that wants to be global. But not that much will have changed since NZ ’87. Only four countries have won it, which accurately reflects the power base. But only eight countries have contested a semi-final. And only 12 countries, over eight tournaments, have got to the quarter-finals. Small wonder we were falling over ourselves when Japan beat South Africa in a thrilling pool game in Brighton in 2015.

The trend in World Cups reflects the merry-go-round that is the Test circuit. The Six Nations and Sanzaar nations would be happy just playing each other, and not have to bother with loss-making Tests against Tier 2 opposition. So those match-ups are rare. In 2018, for example, Ireland played 12 Tests, one of which was against Tier 2 opponents in USA.

So we shouldn’t have been surprised last week that the proposed World League would give us more of the same, except for more money. The idea of the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship countries – plus USA and Japan – having a season-long shindig with new TV money ending with semis and a final in the northern hemisphere took some beating for neck.

Would you believe it, the player unions of the Pacific nations are already talking about boycotting the World Cup in Japan. “This is exactly what happened when they created Super Rugby and all of the subsequent years of expansion,” said former Samoa lock Daniel Leo of Pacific Rugby Players Welfare (PRPW) last week. “Their watchword was let’s take their players but, whatever happens, let’s keep the islands out. This will be Pacific Rugby Disaster 2.0.”

The opposition to the plan, which is scheduled to kick off in 2020, was kicked off by the International Rugby Players Council. In addition to citing limited opportunity for Tier 2 nations – they would have a creche arrangement from which promotion would be possible sometime after global warming reduces the planet to an inferno – they had issues with player load from extra games and travel, the impact on the World Cup itself as well as Lions tours, and the increased conflict between Test and club rugby. The proposed play-offs in November/December would pitch another battle in that particular war. Moreover, they said it would have a negative impact on the long-term integrity of the international game. All of which makes sense.

For their part, World Rugby say that having consulted with everyone and anyone at each step along the way they’re wondering why this storm has suddenly blown up. As far as they’re concerned the proposal – which has yet to be finalised – would not only generate more cash but would satisfy fans’ hunger for an annual international tournament, and bring new folks to the game. So it’s all good.

Except that the rising tide won’t be lifting any boats in those countries like Fiji and Georgia who are ranked, by World Rugby, above a clatter of countries who will be on the inside, enjoying the reported €7.2m in tv revenue on top of existing contracts. In essence, the proposed World League is the best of the south against the best of the north with bells, whistles and bangers and mash. Why not cut to the chase? Give Tier 2 nations more exposure to playing Tier 1; watch them improve; and look forward to a World Cup where interest extends beyond the usual suspects.

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