Georgia may have had the Six Nations door slammed on them but the international calendar agreed for 12 years from 2020, which was announced on Thursday after years of haggling, guarantees tier-two nations regular contact with the top sides in between World Cups.
Under the new calendar the summer tours of the major European countries move from June to the first three weeks of July, apart from the year after a World Cup when only two Tests will be played. The Six Nations sides will begin their autumn international campaigns a week earlier, at the beginning of November, and the start of the World Cup has been brought forward seven days to the second week of September.
The changes mean that in the southern hemisphere, tournaments will be played in blocks: Super Rugby will be played to its conclusion before incoming tours, which will be followed by the Rugby Championship, with tours to the northern hemisphere concluding the season.
Overlaps will remain in Europe, where talks will be held to discuss the timing and the length of the Six Nations – with clubs in England and France wanting it to be played in one block – and how long a Lions tour should be. The agreement between the four home unions and New Zealand, Australia and South Africa ends after this summer’s series against the All Blacks and there have been calls to cut trips from 10 matches to seven.
The greatest impact of the calendar will be on the emerging nations, not only Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Georgia, Romania, the United States, Canada and Japan, but in the longer term Germany, Brazil and Uruguay, as World Rugby looks to grow the game far beyond its traditional heartlands. There will be a minimum of 110 fixtures between tier one and tier two countries between 2020 and 2032, a 39% increase on the current schedule. There will be six in Europe every November and the four Sanzaar unions – South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina – are committed to arranging fixtures in July. France and England will tour the Pacific Islands, while the US, Canada and Japan will host tours. The tier two nations will be ranked after the 2023 World Cup to ensure the best are rewarded.
“Our main goal has always been to take into account the tier two nations and this calendar shows it,” said Agustin Pichot, World Rugby’s vice-chairman. “We spoke to them all extensively, as well as Germany, Uruguay and Brazil, about the plans for the next 12 years.”
Player welfare was central to the discussions and with their summer tours moving back a month, the European season is likely to kick off at the end of September rather than at the beginning to ensure the recommended rest periods for leading players.
“We looked at whether there could be one season but it did not work,” said Bill Beaumont, the World Rugby chairman. “There is nothing revolutionary and there is a bit of a compromise for everybody, but we had to get a solution because there were no tours after 2019. The northern domestic season will, if countries want it, start later in the year.”
New Zealand had threatened to go it alone when talks over the calendar reached deadlock last year. “A lot of hard work went into this and it has been worth it,” said their union’s chief executive, Steve Tew. “It anchors the international game for the next 12 years as the pinnacle of our sport.”