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World Rugby finalises global league plans, but players and unions reject concept

World Rugby has finalised its proposal for an annual global rugby competition, but is facing strong objections from the international unions, particularly the Pacific nations, as well as the International Rugby Players’ (IRP) union.

The proposal would represent the biggest shake up of international rugby since the professionalisation of the game in 1995. The New Zealand Herald is claiming to have seen the finalised blueprint with which World Rugby is planning to go forward, which would see Japan and the USA joining Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship as a counterpart to the northern hemisphere Six Nations. Promotion and relegation has been ruled out on the insistence of the Six Nations.

That in itself has caused consternation, particularly among the unions of the Pacific island nations of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. Fiji is currently ranked higher than either Japan or the USA, but lacks the appeal of the bigger nations to sponsors and broadcasters.

Pacific Rugby Players’ chief executive Aayden Clarke has claimed that one of his counterparts at the Pacific island unions told him the World League would represent “the death of Pacific Island Rugby” for a decade or more.

Likewise within the northern hemisphere, Georgia – ranked higher than Italy – has long been pushing for a place in the Six Nations, but would be excluded for the foreseeable future under the new proposal.

The IRP, meanwhile, has several objections, including over the demands the new competition would place on players, worries that it would increase the already high levels of tension between clubs and countries, and the potential impact of the World League on the Rugby World Cup and other regular international fixtures such as the British and Irish Lions tours.

Johnny Sexton, the Irish rugby captain and chairman of the IRP, has slammed the idea as being “out of touch”, adding that World Rugby “shows little understanding of the physical strains” that playing so many high-level test matches would place on players.

World Rugby has issued a statement in response, stating that while it “recognises and values the importance of player considerations and input”, the manner of the objection was “surprising, given regular engagement throughout this ongoing process.”

It added that “some assumptions made in the statement regarding the proposed competition structure are inaccurate,” and reiterated the commercial potential of the World League.

While World Rugby continues to insist that its plans remain flexible and all options are on the table, it faces a race against time to pass the plans if it is to do so before both the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship begin to renegotiate their broadcasting rights. World Rugby reportedly has at least one broadcaster interested in helping to finance the World League, in a deal which could provide as much as $14m per season to the nations involved.

World Rugby also wishes to have the new format in place as soon as 2020, and wants to sign off on the plans next month.

On Tuesday, SportBusiness reported that private equity firm CVC Capital Partners is looking to invest in the Six Nations – another development that has the potential to kill off the World League.