SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: Rugby has missed a trick with Nations Championship

SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: The old boys’ club remains… rugby has missed a HUGE opportunity again with the new Nations Championship. Bringing tier one, two and three nations together every four years WON’T close the gap

  • Nations Championship will be built around Six Nations and Rugby Championship
  • Chairman of the global governing body lauded the start of a ‘new era’ for rubgy 
  • Sir Clive Woodward believes that rugby has missed a trick with its latest move 

I wanted to take 24 hours to fully digest this week’s news on rugby’s future before commenting on the ratification of the new Nations Championship.

Bill Beaumont described the imminent implementation of the new competition as a ‘quantum leap forward’ for the game. Bill may well believe that.

But it is no ‘quantum leap forward’ if you are Georgia, Samoa or Portugal. Their opportunities to take on the top rugby nations are no better than before.

As the World Cup draws to a close this weekend, World Rugby had the perfect opportunity to excite fans about the game’s future. But the Nations Championship is just a doubling down on what we already have. Will it spark debate on the terraces this weekend? Doubtful.

Will it capture the attention of sports fans beyond rugby? Certainly not.

The new Nations Championship concept was ratified by the narrowest of margins at a World Rugby council vote in Paris – but Mail Sport’s Sir Clive Woodward has his reservations on it

Sir Bill Beaumont hailed rugby’s new Nations Championship as a ‘quantum leap forward’

The old boys’ club remains. The current status quo has been altered, but only slightly. Rugby has missed a huge opportunity to allow new nations to shake up the established order.

But, then again, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, do they? This is the problem at the very highest level of rugby’s corridors of power. It always has been and it looks like it always will. The top countries want to protect their position.

The fact the Nations Championship will be controlled entirely by the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship countries says absolutely everything.

I read Gus Pichot’s interview with Mail Sport last week with huge interest. His views were fascinating and absolutely on the money. I backed Pichot to become World Rugby chairman in 2020.

It’s crazy he is not in charge of our global game. Pichot wouldn’t have let what happened on Tuesday come to fruition. Like me and many others, he was frustrated by rugby’s politics.

Woodward is frustrated by the current politics dictating key decisions across rugby

He represents the kind of entrepreneurial thinking the sport badly needs.

Instead, the boardrooms are dominated by all the same sorts of people – those who refuse to think outside the box. 

The results are predictable. The Nations Championship will begin from 2026 and be made up of the Six Nations countries plus the big four from the southern hemisphere – New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina.

It will be completed by two more sides – likely Japan and Fiji.

I’m pleased Fiji will get a chance to continue to mix it with the best as they showed at this World Cup in France they are a hugely talented and progressive side.

But so too are Samoa and Tonga who have been boosted by the change in eligibility rules.

This World Cup came around too quickly for them having played so few games in recent years, but with time and more matches they could be a force alongside Fiji.

Let’s not forget England only beat Samoa by a point. Fiji lost to Portugal. And while Georgia misfired at this World Cup, they beat Wales and Italy only last year.

These teams are now cut off despite showing they deserve more of an opportunity. The ‘tier-two nations’ – and I don’t like using that term – will play each other in another league below the Nations Championship. But there won’t be promotion and relegation between the two until 2032.

The Nations Championship, which begins in 2026, won’t help sides like Portugal close the gap

Why is that? Eight years? How disheartening for the players, most of whom will be retired before they get a shot at promotion.

And how convenient for those in ‘tier one’ because by 2032, the gulf between the two leagues will only have grown. Even then, they would still have an insurance policy of a play-off match.

Beaumont declared ‘all boats will rise together’ when confirming rugby’s planned new world order. But I just don’t think that’s the case. This is what frustrates me the most. That is just wrong.

Orthodox thinking is what has held rugby back for so long. Perhaps foolishly, I was genuinely hoping for a lot more this time.

The only way you can develop as a team – and this is what countries like Portugal and Georgia need to continue to do – is to play regular games against the best teams.

Under rugby’s new framework – which was only just passed – there are no formal plans yet in place for the teams in the second division to play against those in the first.

How can that be? World Rugby has let the likes of Portugal, Samoa and Georgia down.

As an England team 20 years ago, we rarely played these sorts of countries except at World Cups and you have to say that in the time since, not much has changed.

The next Rugby World Cup in Australia will also be expanded from the current 20 sides to 24

I didn’t like other aspects which came out of World Rugby’s announcements in Paris either. The overhaul of the men’s game means the Six Nations will soon be played over a six-week period, not seven as it currently stands. World Rugby talks constantly about player welfare.

But how can it claim to have the wellbeing of the sport’s participants at heart when it is placing ever greater demands on them? The Six Nations is already a brutal and gruelling tournament. 

And taking it to six weeks will, in my view, only serve to favour France and England who have greater player depth in terms of numbers and can withstand injuries the better.

Ireland, for all their wonderful talent, don’t have the same resource and it’s the same for Wales and Scotland.

I hope I’m wrong, but we don’t want to see the Six Nations dominated by two teams.

I’d like to see promotion and relegation between the Six Nations and the second tier Rugby Europe competition.

The next World Cup in Australia will also be expanded from the current 20 sides to 24. World Rugby say this is a means of giving developing countries more opportunity.

But this misses the point entirely. Bringing ‘tier one’, ‘tier two’ and ‘tier three’ nations together only once every four years will not close the gap. We saw a lot of one-sided games in the pool stages of this World Cup. There will only be more of those in a 24-team tournament made up of six pools of four.

World Rugby – fronted by CEO Alan Gilpin (above) – held a ballot which saw officials from the leading nations and regions vote 41 to 10 in favour of the brand new international competition

That’s why I think you could have a two-tier World Cup. That would ensure teams get the chance to compete but don’t suffer hammerings. It’s not competitive. It turns off supporters.

In theory, the next World Cup could see the likes of Spain, USA, Canada and Uruguay join the teams we’ve seen in France.

But they will only suffer heavy losses if their only chance to play the best is once every four years.

The Nations Championship was the chance to change all that. Once again, rugby has let a priceless opportunity to deliver real and meaningful change slip through its fingers.

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