World Rugby are considering five different models for a revived Nations Championship in 2024, which will feature northern and southern hemisphere teams competing in a biennial tournament with a grand final.
Previous attempts to get the Nations Championship off the ground have foundered upon opposition from the Six Nations in 2019 and club leagues in 2020 when World Rugby tried to expand the November window. However, Telegraph Sport understands that there is far greater momentum behind this current project with CVC Capital Partners, the private equity group which has stakes in the Six Nations, Premiership and United Rugby Championship, acting as the driving force.
Crucially, the club leagues have no objections to the Nations Championship with World Rugby committed to keeping the tournament in the current July and November windows. One proposal on the table would mean expanding the November window from three to four weeks, which would be counterbalanced by removing a rest week during the Six Nations. World Rugby have ensured the clubs and the players’ associations have been far more closely involved in the current consultations.
All stakeholders accept that a tournament would provide far greater cohesion and coherence to the international calendar that is barely fit for purpose. The Autumn Nations Series – as this year’s autumn internationals have been branded – kicks off this weekend with Wales missing 20 players against New Zealand and Tonga a similar number away to Scotland as both games are outside the international window. Such matches are foregone conclusions and damaging to the prestige of international rugby.
Building a tournament with a meaningful, marketable narrative culminating in a grand final would an appealing prospect to broadcasters and supporters alike. Ben Morel, the chief executive of the Six Nations which is also responsible for the Autumn Nations Series, this week said “some sort of final is exciting and that’s what the fans want to see.”
There are still numerous obstacles to be navigated, from addressing the status quo instincts of the home unions to concerns over player welfare. However, several well-placed sources have indicated that there is considerable confidence that they can be overcome, especially with CVC having paid £365 million for a seventh share of the Six Nations this year.
“CVC sit back in the background but in the circles of influence they are the ones who call a lot of the shots,” one source told Telegraph Sport. “They don’t have a vested interest in what’s best for one camp or another. They just want what’s best for the competition, which will then lead on to a really viable commercial property.
“This is why having CVC in there are such a good thing is they are a disruptor and arbitrator and they can push this forward. That’s far better than everyone all running around like headless chickens doing their own things. Now they can be pulled in the same direction.”
Morel confirmed there were “active conversations” around the relaunch of the Nations Championship. “Not only did we support it, we’re are actively at the table discussing what it can be,” Morel said. “We believe this would be a great further improvement. We’re definitely heavily involved in those discussions.”
The original proposal for a Nations Championship involved the Six Nations unions facing the Rugby Championship teams of New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and South Africa along with two tier-two countries, most likely Japan and Fiji. The conferences would play each other once, either home or away. That remains an option on the table as well as expanding the format to eight teams from either hemisphere. This would run in parallel with a tournament for developing countries with World Rugby adamant that there must be a mechanism for advancement to the top table. This proved a major sticking point for the home unions in 2019, however it is understood that promotion and relegation from the Six Nations itself is off the table.
Both World Rugby and CVC are thought to prefer a more radical model in which the top four finishers to qualify from the Six Nations for the Nations Championship. This cleaner, more streamlined format would also allow the introduction of a semi-final stage within a six-week window.
Had this format been introduced this year then England, who finished fifth in the Six Nations, would have missed out on lucrative fixtures against Australia and South Africa. Italy, who last won a Six Nations game in 2015, are especially concerned by this prospect, which Morel acknowledged on Tuesday. “We are looking at formats that will involve everyone and so we are all very aligned in terms of what the solution could be,” Morel said.
The World Club Cup is also set to be launched in 2024. Telegraph Sport understands that New Zealand and Australian club franchises have already earmarked weeks in June 2024 for these matches to take place against the quarter-finallists of the Champions Cup.
International rugby is slightly further behind but the direction of travel is clear as Morel emphasised. “The key point is that July and November really stands for north v south international encounters,” Morel said. “That needs to be kept, it’s what people want to see.”