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Rugby chiefs warned to resolve global calendar now or risk losing sport’s future to private equity

“If it doesn’t work now, I am sure it will take a totally different shape and it might be a private equity group coming in and doing that. Ideally for rugby as sport, we do this ourselves, and so we keep the benefits that will come from this. If private equity comes in then they take their cut.

“That’s something that could be going to the unions, could be going to the emerging nations and could be going to the women’s game and growing that further. I’ve seen the way private equity works and they can make things happen that traditional means can’t achieve. I’m still hopeful that we can set this up, but it might just mean that a few parties put their own commercial interests aside for the greater good.”

Under the plan, the Nations Championship would have a top division of 12 teams containing a pool of the Six Nations countries who would play a game each against a pool of New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Argentina, Fiji and Japan. In the July window, a European nation would play three games in two countries to minimize the amount of traveling which was a key concern for players last time. In November, the Six Nations countries would play their remaining three matches at home and the teams at the top of each pool would face off in a Grand Final.

‘There’s a lot of players and they don’t always agree on things’

For example, England could play in Australia and then travel to New Zealand to face the All Blacks and Fiji who would be the ‘host’ team. In November, England would then host South Africa, Argentina and Japan.

The tournament would only take place outside of World Cup and Lions years. Results in the Six Nations and Rugby Championship would not be counted and membership of those tournaments would not be affected.

There would also be a mirror tournament for emerging nations such as Georgia, Tonga and Samoa divided between European and Pacific Nations. Under the current plan, the emerging nations would have the opportunity to enter the top division with a promotion-relegation play-off against the teams finishing bottom of their pool.

In Lions years, tier-one nations would be encouraged to tour the emerging nations so England could visit the Pacific Island nations for the first time since 1991.

Insiders at World Rugby believe that there is an overall consensus for the need for promotion and relegation, but difficulties remain if a play-off were to occur in the fourth week of November, which is outside the mandated player release determined by regulation 9.

Perhaps an even trickier debate revolves around the commercial model for the Nations Championship and the split of revenues between the biggest markets of France and England and smaller shares of, say, Australia and Fiji. Traditionally, the host unions keep all gate receipts for home matches.

As Smith readily admits, the “model isn’t perfect” but he says it is better than the alternative of kicking the can down the road for another decade. “When you’re representing international rugby players, there’s a lot of players and they don’t always agree on things, but in terms of the global season they’re very positive,” Smith said. “They think it’s a step forward for the game that we need.

“There is potentially massive upside. It protects player welfare, it gives clarity, structure and opportunity for the emerging nations and every two years the best play the best, which will be commercially attractive.”

A World Rugby council meeting on Thursday would approve any changes to the calendar. Will traditional powers be able to put self-interest aside to make it work? “As a betting man, I would not bet my life savings on a huge resounding vote in favour, but I suppose it could be a commitment to make this happen by 2026,” Smith said. “If it doesn’t happen that will be a massive wasted opportunity.”

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