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World Rugby’s leadership is under extreme scrutiny for its proposed ‘world league’ concept. Last week, a now-disputed report detailing a plan to include the rich markets of Japan and the USA and exclude the traditionally-stronger pacific island nations of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga from a lucrative competition went viral, drawing widespread criticism from every corner of the world.

The world league is the brainchild of World Rugby vice chairman and USA Rugby board member Agustin Pichot. Rugby Today sat down with Pichot Saturday at the USA Sevens at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, Nev. to discuss the concept and widespread backlash. (Listen to the full interview on the latest episode of the RUGBY PatCast). 

The former Argentina scrumhalf clarified his proposal – for two 12-team competitions featuring promotion/relegation between them – which would be based on merit and not freeze out the pacific island nations. Pichot also said there was always meant to be a break built in for player welfare purposes, as the reported plan was widely criticized by the world’s best players for exacerbating a growing volume problem.

Blame for distorting the proposal to include ringfencing the top 12 with Japan and the USA for a decade has been publicly shifted to the Six Nations. While Pichot didn’t foist blame on the European heavyweights explicitly, he didn’t deny they were behind the exclusive idea, either.

From an American perspective, the leaked proposal could be interpreted as good news. It had the Eagles joining Japan in The Rugby Championship alongside New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina, receiving $10-14 million in annual revenue share, guaranteeing a spot at the table for a decade. Maybe, just maybe, that would be enough time for the Eagles to close the gap and turn 60-to-100-point losses into something more respectable and marketable, and perhaps the constant presence of the world’s best teams would help grow the game Stateside.

However, Pichot, who is formally involved in the leadership for World Rugby, SANZAAR (owner of The Rugby Championship) and USA Rugby all at the same time, says he will only support a plan that includes merit-based divisions and promotion/relegation, which he sees as integral in developing the second tier.

“You start investing into that model, how you play, where you travel, and having an organized professional scenario for those 12 teams as well,” he said. “So what you do is raise the bar constantly, an you’re not only thinking about those 10 or 12 at the top. You have to think about 24, at least.”

World Rugby has already implemented promotion/relegation for two annual, global competitions – the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and the Junior World Championships. The results from neither suggest promotion/relegation works as a developmental tool.

The Junior World Championships is the annual U20 competition. The last-place team is relegated to the second-tier Junior World Trophy, whose winner is promoted. In the history of promotion/relegation between these competitions, five teams have achieved promotion – Italy, Japan, Samoa, Uruguay and the USA. Four times, the team that’s promoted one season has been immediately relegated the next.

Uruguay was promoted in 2009 and relegated in 2010. The USA was promoted in 2013 and relegated in 2014. Japan was promoted in 2018 just to be relegated in 2019. Samoa was relegated in 2016, promoted in 2017 and relegated again in 2018.  

Since promotion/relegation was introduced to the HSBC Sevens World Series for the 2014/2015 season, Japan has been promoted and relegated every other season. On the circuit in 14/15, off in 15/16, on in 16/17, off in 17/18, and back on this season.

Stratifying the top 24 teams in the world could have the opposite of the desired effect. It could go a step further toward subjugating those developing nations, mandating higher returns for the top tier and virtually eliminating space in the calendar for inter-tier tests.

Pichot concocted the plan after seeing a Welsh player miss a test against Argentina to rest on the back end of a long professional season.

“For Argentina that’s a disrespect. We’re playing the whole team. The whole nation is wanting to see the best internationals coming to our country, and this guy is resting, because he has to be ready,” said Pichot. “I find the whole thing was going to a place that I think wasn’t great for international rugby.”

In the climate of players retiring from international rugby in their 20s to chase lucrative club contracts, a $200 million infusion of cash into the Gallagher Premiership and the specter of a potential game-changer in the billionaire-backed Global Rapid Rugby looming, World Rugby is running scared of the professional game. The deepest fear is that the world’s best players will opt to play for club instead of country.

“It’s a question of having international rugby as the pinnacle of every rugby player,” Pichot said.

“We had to make a change, and that started one way, and then promotion/relegation came in and then the closed door came in and the whole thing exploded,” he added.

The onslaught of criticism from every angle has World Rugby reconsidering the plan. An emergency meeting is set for Dublin. Pichot’s confidence in reaching an agreement is waning.

“We’re giving it a go, and in two weeks’ time we have exco meetings, and we’re going to go again, these are the models, promotion/relegation, no promotion/relegation, then we can discuss if there’s a commercial model,” said Pichot.

“Then the revenue share, what happens with the other teams? How do you help those other 12 teams not to be just a second division, keep everyone happy, and maybe one gets up and down? Those are what the broader discussions are going to be. I don’t think we’re going to get to that stage, but that’s my own, personal opinion.”