What can be done to ride the wave of Portugal's success?
The 2023 Rugby World Cup was fantastic. Aside from a lopsided draw which made Joseph Merrick look symmetrical, we largely got the final that many would have wanted from the outset.
There will, of course, be those teams who won’t view the tournament as a success, on the field at least. France and Ireland would both have expected to progress further – with a semi-final arguably being their minimum requirement pre-tournament. But regardless of who we support, we can all agree that the performances of the Tier Two nations were beyond competitive, almost remarkable.
Firstly, and we must address it, the term Tier Two always leaves a bitter taste on the rugby palate. World Rugby has shifted to talking about ‘high performance nations’ and ‘performance nations’ but for the sake of clarity in this article, we’ll use Tier One and Tier Two.
With the comparable success of the Tier Two teams at the RWC, their proposed exclusion from playing against Tier One nations in the first tier of the new global league/Nations Championship for the foreseeable future seems extremely short-sighted – that’s the long and short of the new World Rugby proposals.
The new format will see the top teams play each other more and potentially limit their exposure to the lower ranked teams, although World Rugby does claim that crossover games between Tier One and Tier Two sides will increase by 50% under the new system, slated to come in from 2026.
Exposure in this instance is not just limited to rugby terms, it’s on the financial side where the situation may be most harmful. Like it or not, rugby is a professional sport, no longer driven by plates of chips and beans, three pints and a sing-song.
And with cold hard cash comes even colder, harder realities – no Tier One nation is going to willingly cripple its own finances to help a test team in Tier Two. Whilst the top nations might still appear to be eating swan breasts, stuffed with albino duckling, spooned from the shell of an upturned leatherback turtle, they are not.
For example, in 2022 the New Zealand Rugby Union posted a loss of $47 Million and the RFU is predicting a loss of £40 million in 2023-24. Not every union is making a loss of course.
The IRFU announced an operating surplus of €5.9 million for 2022 and the WRU posted a profit of £3.2 million for the year ending 2022. But as you can see, these aren’t big numbers, and they certainly aren’t the numbers of businesses that can afford to take risks with their income.
Whilst it seems selfish to look after your own, ahead of the wider playing rugby world, it is totally understandable. In our everyday lives, most of us would look after our immediate family in a time of need, rather than someone living on the other side of town.
This may seem overly simplistic, but it certainly explains why the Tier One nations voted through these proposals. Particularly when social media and traditional media were all clamouring for a far more open-armed approach to the global calendar – rather than a big middle finger with promotion/relegation not starting until 2030 and not taking effect until 2032.
So, with that rather Darwinian observation stated, if not easily accepted, how can the Tier One nations help the Tier Two future look brighter, without it costing them too much income.
How can Tier One nations help improve the Tier Two future?
One solution may be to allow Tier One nation matches to occur on the same day in the same stadium, as Tier Two matches. For instance, England could add £10 onto the price of a ticket, where the punters get to watch Chile v Portugal for example, followed by England v New Zealand.
Both teams get to make a few quid and the Tier Two product gets to sit in front of a larger audience. The problem with an idea like this is that the domestic audiences in Chile and Portugal wouldn’t get to the see that game in person – limiting organic growth.
The other solution is for a Tier One nation to select an ‘A team’ to play on the same day as their First XV. For example, England A play Chile at Twickenham, followed by England v New Zealand etc.
None of these are perfect solutions. If it was easy, it would have been solved by now. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Rugby, as a rule, is a sport that certainly has problems, but little appetite to solve them.
Some supporters are as much to blame as some administrators. The bulk of the anger aimed at rugby’s problems is often then re-directed at any proposed solutions. Leaving solutions thinner on the ground than a tighthead at London Fashion week.
But of course, the major problem with trying to find any solution to the problems of the Tier Two teams, is that the window of ‘giving a s***’ is roughly two weeks after the final whistle at the RWC. At that stage, the test players are once again back at their clubs and domestic rugby dictates the narrative.
Whatever the solution to the problems of the Tier Two future, they won’t be solved if they are hugely detrimental to the income of the Tier One teams. There may be a will to create a ‘Tier 1.5’, but the finances are currently nowhere near.