Wales’ entry into new competition will change autumn internationals forever and come with threat of catastrophic relegation

Plans for the biggest change to Test rugby since the advent of professionalism are being discussed in Dublin this week.

The sport’s leading unions will meet with World Rugby wanting them to commit to the new competition – set to be a two-tier format that would reshape the global calendar – by the end of the week.

From there, the hope is that a formal vote on its introduction would be held in November. But what exactly would this new competition, a revamp of the failed Nations Championship that was scrapped in 2019, look like?

Read next:The plan to revolutionise Welsh rugby that was killed by the amateur clubs four years ago

And what are the sticking points potentially standing in its way?

What is the basic format?

So, let’s start with the basics.

The international game would be split into two separate tiers of 12 teams. Every two years, the tournament would result in a grand final and two promotion/relegation play-offs – one for each hemisphere. In that regards, it’s a little bit like the Nations League that UEFA has introduced into international football in Europe.

It’s reported that the lower tier – dubbed the “Challenger” tier, according to the Times – would begin in 2024 – with Tier Two teams from Europe, Africa, Asia and America being included. Based on current rankings, that would include Georgia, Spain, Romania, Portugal, the Netherlands, Samoa, Tonga, Namibia, the United States, Canada, Uruguay and Chile.

The top tier would then begin in 2026. That would be made up of the Six Nations sides, the Rugby Championship sides and then Japan and Fiji.

Crucially, it’s worth noting that there would be no relegation from the Six Nations or Rugby Championship. Points from those tournaments also wouldn’t count towards the overall standing of both tiers – with that instead being accrued in summer and autumn Tests.

How those matches would work is that each Six Nations team would travel to face three southern hemisphere opponents in the summer. They would then host the remaining three southern hemisphere sides at home that autumn.

In terms of a final, there’s three options. The first is to just hand the trophy to the side that finishes top of the table.

The second – and reportedly favoured – option is to play a grand final between the top two teams and then two promotion/relegation play-offs between the winners of lower tiers and the lowest-placed sides in the highest tiers. The third option is that six northern teams play their closest-ranked southern opponent at home, similar to what the Autumn Nations Cup did in 2020.

With the tournament being biennial, relegation would reportedly work as follows. Were a top-tier northern hemisphere team – such as England, Wales or Ireland – relegated in at the end of 2026, they would play their usual fixtures in 2027.

However, it would be in 2028 when the relegation takes effect. There, they would then play the Six Nations as usual before playing a summer tour away to the southern hemisphere’s lower teams before welcoming the remainder of them back in the autumn – all in a bid to earn a chance at winning promotion back in 2030.

The reason the tournament begins in even years and is every two years is so it isn’t affected too much by World Cups and Lions tours. During Lions years, the plan would be for cross-division matches – with higher tier sides taking on lower tier sides – alongside some high-profile matches.

In that sense, it wouldn’t be too dissimilar to what happens now, with France playing a southern hemisphere giant while the home nations, shorn of Lions stars, take on smaller nations.

What are the sticking points?

So that’s the plan. Unlike the doomed Nations Championship, this proposed competition stands a better chance of succeeding – with much of it being broadly agreed by all parties. But there are, of course, some sticking points to iron out before it becomes a reality.

While World Rugby want a verbal commitment to this plan this week, there’s a few areas the leading unions might balk at.

The prospect of relegation would certainly be one – even if it seems unlikely for many of Test rugby’s biggest sides. This is why assurances are wanted from the Six Nations and SANZAAR sides over the viability of the second tier.

Understandably, in a sport short of cash, a year losing income in the second tier would be detrimental to any nation. They won’t be keen on that risk and that’s why the second tier is set to start two years earlier – in order to see how it works before the top nations sign off on relegation.

However, it’s hard to understand the point of these plans without some form of progress for lower-tier nations. Otherwise, Test rugby becomes more of a narrow, closed shop than it already is – which will only hurt it financially in years to come.

The fixtures in the summer could also prove challenging – with different time-zones and lengthy travel coming in to play. If Wales were called upon to play New Zealand and Fiji in consecutive weeks, that would be a headache when it came to travel.

Then, at the end of the year, the autumn fixtures would take place over three weekends – which is as many weekends as there are in the Test window. Were the competition to explore the possibility of a grand final – or any form of activity – on a fourth weekend, then player release would have to be explored. That’s a complicated thing.

The other potential sticking point could be revenue sharing between unions.

How would it affect Wales?

In terms of how it would affect Wales, there’s a few obvious things. For starters, summer tours would never be the same again – with a string of different opponents rather than a two or three Test tour of one single nation.

As for the autumn, the three matches proposed would rob Wales of their annual fourth out-of-window international. That fourth Test has become a staple of Welsh rugby in recent years – with the national side being willing to forgo a full-strength team in pursuit of another match to bring in revenue.

Of course, the most notable thing would be relegation. While the prospect of Wales being relegated from a top-tier would normally seem unthinkable, with it requiring Georgia or another side of similar ilk to beat them, Wales’ recent slide means it couldn’t be ruled out entirely.

A year of playing Tier Two sides would be catastrophic in financial terms for Welsh rugby. Given their recent fortunes and the sense that the chickens are finally coming home to roost after years of papering over the cracks, it might be that Welsh rugby bosses don’t fancy the risks this new competition would bring.

Beyond those obvious points, it’s ultimately up the top brass to decide whether these plans are in the best interest of Welsh rugby and, crucially, rugby as a whole.


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