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The Breakdown | Club World Cup ticks a lot of boxes but could also hurt the game and its players
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The Breakdown | Club World Cup ticks a lot of boxes but could also hurt the game and its players

It’s back. And this time it might actually happen. The idea of a formal Club World Cup has been kicking around for a couple of decades but, finally, it is almost cleared for take-off in 2028. Sixteen teams, four successive June weekends in the northern hemisphere, one winner. Please insert your own personal reaction emoji here.

As ever, that will probably depend on where you happen to be sitting. If you are a cash-strapped administrator struggling to keep the club game afloat, it will instinctively feel like a no-brainer. Enhanced global television and sponsor exposure, a clearly-defined slot in the calendar and the best in each hemisphere going hammer and tongs at each other in potentially half-decent weather. Tick, tick, tick.

And yes, at first glance, there would be some fascinating match-ups. If it was starting this season it would involve the last eight Champions Cup sides – Leinster, La Rochelle, Northampton, Bulls, Bordeaux, Harlequins, Toulouse and Exeter Chiefs – plus the top six Super Rugby sides and, potentially, the two leading Japanese clubs. New Zealand’s current top dogs – the Blues and the Hurricanes – against Leinster and Toulouse? Viewers from north and south alike might well watch a game or two, if only out of curiosity.

But let’s press pause for a moment. How about the significant impact on the club game’s traditional supporting pillars? While some artful sleight of hand has gone into the scheduling – the knockout phase of the Champions Cup would disappear once every four years to facilitate the new concept – have the architects been too clever for their own good?

Is it really progress, for example, to dilute perhaps the world’s most compelling club rugby tournament in favour of, say, the Japanese conference leaders Toshiba Brave Lupus and Saitama Wild Knights playing in Exeter and Northampton in June?

And, more to the point, what about the players? Imagine you are an international prop forward from the northern hemisphere. You have just slogged your way through an endlessly demanding World Cup warm-up camp, followed by the tournament bun-fight itself, have battled to the end of an intense Six Nations championship (with one fewer fallow weekends than used to be the case) and now, from a horizontal position in a darkened room, you are perusing your diary.

Under the proposed new arrangements, the domestic club season will culminate earlier which will necessitate hitting another peak in May. Followed by the final stages of the Club World Cup. Followed by several more potential long-haul flights to fulfil fixtures in the new Nations League, which is set to supersede traditional ad-hoc tours from 2026. Followed by a few hasty weeks off before digging deep to try to earn selection on a British & Irish Lions tour the following summer. Presumably Elton John’s I’m Still Standing will be the official walk-on anthem? Either that or Abba’s Money, Money, Money.

Anything other than blind optimism, however, is likely to be frowned upon. On the plus side, admittedly, it could introduce slightly more order to the Mad Hatter’s tea party that has previously masqueraded as rugby’s global fixture calendar. No longer, potentially, will France’s Top 14 play on deep into June or Europe’s supposed showpiece club fixture be wedged tightly in between rounds of key domestic games.

The other familiar cry will be that if rugby’s authorities don’t create some kind of coherent world club championship then someone else will. “Our clubs, as well as those in Europe and the southern hemisphere, have had approaches from Monaco, Abu Dhabi and, most recently, from South Africa,” said Mark McCafferty, then Premiership Rugby’s chief executive, back in 2010. “If the stakeholders within rugby don’t create this, somebody else will and we’ll find an outsider coming in.” Fourteen years on, as golf and other sports can testify, the same argument pertains.

The big difference now, though, is that the English clubs are desperately seeking to stay afloat. At the most recent count their collective losses for the last financial year alone were almost £25m, with Newcastle still to declare their annual results. Super Rugby is hardly awash with investors’ cash either. While the top French teams are in danger of disappearing into another commercial stratosphere, they also recognise the value of a collective foothold in the wider global market.

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So while some credit should go to all those who spent endless years sitting in committee rooms throwing diaries at each others’ heads in search of workable dates, there is also a sense of same old, same old. The same old attempts to force a quart into a pint pot in terms of player and squad load. The same old flawed logic: in this case that sawing the knockout legs off the Champions Cup every four years will not damage the tournament’s profile in the other three. And the same old disregard for an overheated planet which hardly needs even more pro rugby teams flying across the world than it already has.

Some will counter that, with South African teams already competing in the United Rugby Championship and Champions Cup, that precedent has long since been set. And money tends to talk loudest. Doing nothing, given club rugby’s financial instability, is not an option. This is a moon shot which might one day open up previously unreachable horizons: a let’s-get-ready-to-rumble world club champion, maybe even a major rugby final in the middle east. It will not suit all tastes but, hey, the future is on its way.

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Source: theguardian.com