AS the top rugby teams on the planet were probably still taking stock of the past World Cup, the joy and despair, the next group of nations — the best of the rest we could call them — were gathering in London last week for a watershed meeting to determine their future in a game that has frustratingly taken too long to break barriers.
The standing of the rest of the world among the international rugby community has become a serious bone of contention in most recent years, with the suits at the World Rugby headquarters in Dublin reacting by hinting at some kind of radical reforms each time pressure has been brought to bear on the global ruling body to transform this game’s global appeal.
That pressure appears to have been heeded, thankfully, in the wake of the strong performances of the emerging nations at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
The workshop in London on January 31, convened by rugby’s world governing body, set out plans to launch a new global competition for second-tier nations as early as next year.
This comes after the collapse last year of World Rugby’s Nations Championship concept, which initially sought to address the imbalance in the game.
The full outcomes will be presented to the World Rugby Regional Rugby Committee and Executive Committees in March for a full consultation with a recommended model to be considered by the World Rugby Council in May.
This is some good news, finally. Countries like Zimbabwe here in Africa, who should be among the favourites from this continent to be included in this groundbreaking structure, will be very excited at the prospect of regular competitive matches of high-profile status against peer sides from other regions of the world.
While rugby fans in the leading nations look forward every year to their elite annual competitions, the Six Nations in Europe and the Rugby Championship in the southern hemisphere, the rest of the world can also now have something to treasure, hopefully something that will grow in stature quickly and claim a proud place on the international rugby calendar.
Let us though, for a minute, ponder the other side of this proposed new structure. The downside is, of course, that not everybody gets included.
But if that’s how standards are to be safeguarded, while at the same time bridging the gap between the best and the second or so batch of teams of world rugby, so be it.
This, however, still needs to be handled very carefully, and already one of the most influencial figures in African rugby today tells me how “obviously smaller unions fear exclusion”.
When I wanted to know who exactly feared being left out, I was told simply: “Those who don’t get included, or rather have minimum chance of making the grade.”
Meanwhile, there will be an executive committee meeting of Rugby Africa in Kenya from April 24 to 27, where the proposed global competition model for the world’s tier-two nations will dominate discussions.
But, speaking quite frankly, everybody knows their place in this sport. When the time comes and the criteria for the new structure are laid out, the question of who makes the cut and who doesn’t will address itself.
Restructuring, by its very nature, is a touchy subject. In this case, protecting the integrity of Test rugby will be uppermost in the vision of World Cup even as the governing body aims to spread regular competitive international competition to all corners of the world.
In Europe, for example, Georgia hasn’t been admitted to the Six Nations despite making significant strides. Some harsh critics have even called for Italy, a team that will smash quite a lot of international sides in the world today, to be axed from Europe’s premier international competition because at that level, the Italians haven’t been quite up to scratch.
So, while exciting reforms are on the way, the end product we all desire —which is growth and good quality rugby across the world — must be the hallmark of the revolution set to be experienced by this potentially massive global sport.