Exclusive: World 12s 'dead in the water' after World Rugby refuses to sanction new format

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England celebrate a try - GETTY IMAGES
England celebrate a try - GETTY IMAGES

The launch of the prospective World 12s tournament has been torpedoed after World Rugby told organisers that it would not sanction a new model of the game, Telegraph Sport can reveal.

Backed by big names such as World Cup-winning coaches Jake White and Steve Hansen, organisers claimed it could bring the biggest players together in an annual 12-a-side tournament, which it said would bring £250 million into the sport over five years. The first men’s tournament was scheduled to take place over three weeks in August 2022 and chairman Ian Ritchie, the former chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, claimed to have received more than 10 significant approaches from organisations looking to invest in their franchise model.

However, despite receiving strong interest from the players, who could stand to make £90,000 each, it has sparked a backlash from clubs and unions who were unwilling to sanction the release of their prized assets to effectively a rival competition. Telegraph Sport can reveal that Premiership Rugby, the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (which represents the French league), the United Rugby Championship and some home unions wrote to World Rugby expressing strong opposition to the proposal.

World Rugby has now communicated those feelings to the organisers which leaves the tournament “dead in the water” according to one high-placed club source.

“The game’s major stakeholders welcome innovative thinking that has the potential to enhance the sport, and new concepts are always given full consideration,” a World Rugby spokesperson said.

“World Rugby has reflected the views of national unions, international and domestic competitions to the group proposing World 12s and confirmed that stakeholders do not wish to explore the concept further at this time.

“This is a position endorsed by the World Rugby Executive Committee and Professional Game Committee, which includes representatives from across the elite men’s and women’s game. The priority for the sport is advancing productive discussions regarding the establishment of a welfare-focused, streamlined and harmonious annual international calendar.”

Could World 12s still happen?

There is no mistaking that the World 12s concept has suffered a severe blow with the lack of sanctioning from World Rugby. The question is whether it is fatal.

Speaking to those involved in leagues and clubs, the time of death has been issued and the obituary written. They are determined not to release their players – no matter how keen they might be to pick up a six-figure cheque for three weeks’ work – for a tournament that encroaches into their seasons. Without the star players plying their trade in the northern hemisphere, the whole concept of the World 12s as the IPL of rugby is null and void.

“It’s dead in the water,” a club source told Telegraph Sport. “If we want to run a 12s competition preseason then we would do it. We own the players’ contracts. I just don’t understand how intelligent people could do something like this without going to World Rugby or the leagues in the first instance. It was total hot air.”

Yet World 12s organisers are putting the bravest of faces on these developments a bit like that scene in The Simpsons where Homer is chasing after a barbecued pig which rolls down a hill, into a river and is projected into the stratosphere, shouting "it’s just a little airborne. It’s still good, it’s still good!"

They now say the inaugural men’s tournament was never going to attract “192 of the world’s best male players”, as outlined in the original prospectus. Instead it will be a soft launch, likely made up of players from leagues in New Zealand, Australia, Japan and the United States. Then the plan is full steam ahead to a 2023 women’s competition, which has far fewer barriers, and a men’s tournament in 2024 featuring the cream of the crop.

This remains contentious. Both the inaugural World Club Cup and a revived Nations Championship are supposed to be launched in 2024. Could Maro Itoje or Cheslin Kolbe, say, be realistically expected to play in all three new tournaments on top of their regular club and country commitments?

Certainly with the salaries being mooted around agent circles, many players are desperate to come on board – player welfare be damned. A nuclear option for the World 12s would be to further up these offers to encourage a breakaway league like Kerry Packer did in cricket all these years ago.

However, for the moment, this is not a route World 12s organisers are exploring. Instead they have just appointed a new chief executive, Rowena Samarasinhe, whose first task was to send a letter to all the sport’s stakeholders to reassure them they want to work with rather than against the leagues and unions.

She will be holding meetings in the coming weeks to explain that the World 12s can complement rather than threaten the existing leagues. Arguably this is what World 12s should have done in the first instance. Instead, without a word of warning, they launched in September with a considerable cast list including a pair of World Cup-winning coaches in Steve Hansen and Jake White. Leagues and unions were furious at being blindsided.

For many club figures, it is not a case that a big enough cheque will make their obejctions fade away. If you are launching a league that is marketing itself as the most exciting thing in rugby what does that do to the value of the Premiership or the Top 14? Never mind a tank being on their lawn, this would be reversing into their house. Perhaps most significantly, Telegraph Sport understands that CVC capital partners, the private equity firm which has stakes in Premiership Rugby and the United Rugby Championship, are vehemently opposed to the World 12s. Again why would they want another private equity company to muscle in on their turf?

These are questions that have not yet been satisfactorily answered. As first days on the job go, Samarasinhe has had the toughest one imaginable.

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