By Ian Ransom
OITA, Japan (Reuters) – The collapse of World Rugby’s proposal for a global tournament was a bitter pill for tier two nations, and northern hemisphere “self interest” could ultimately threaten the primacy of test rugby if left unchecked, Fiji coach John McKee has said.
McKee issued the warning on Tuesday as his team made final preparations for Six Nations champions Wales, hoping to stave off early elimination from a third successive World Cup.
World Rugby’s Nations Championship proposal would have brought the tier one Six Nations and Rugby Championship sides together in an annual tournament along with two other nations.
It was a popular idea in the southern hemisphere and raised hopes among tier two countries like Fiji that have been shut out of the lucrative annual competitions and want more chances to play the global rugby powers.
However, after failing to secure northern hemisphere support, the proposal was shredded in June. The Six Nations have since entered exclusive negotiations with a private investor to sell a stake in their tournament.
“That was massively disappointing for Fiji. There seemed to be an opportunity presenting, and it got blocked by self-interest at the Six Nations,” New Zealander McKee told Reuters in an interview.
“I think for World Rugby, the significance of the international game needs to be kept at the forefront.
“The concern would be that the professional clubs are getting bigger and bigger, and more powerful to the point that rugby becomes more like football, where there’s not really that much interest in internationals outside the World Cup.
“That’s not the structure that rugby union’s built on.”
British media have reported the Six Nations are set to sell a stake of up to 15 percent to a private equity firm, raising fears of a widening gap between the top tier and the rest.
World Rugby has said it will continue to push proposals to globalise the game and is looking at other tournament options to help raise the second tier.
Fiji and Pacific nations Tonga and Samoa contribute a significant proportion of players in rugby’s professional ranks, not to mention those playing in tier one teams like Australia and France.
With Pacific markets too small to support proper professional leagues that can compete with European cheque-books, McKee and his Tonga and Samoa counterparts face further battles to retain talent and secure resources.
“We have massive challenges around the pathway for our players,” he said.
“Until the Pacific gets a home-grown professional team, this is always going to be the case.
“The bar always goes up. Over the World Cup cycle I’ve been involved in, we’ve made a lot of gains, but your opposition makes a lot of gains as well so the challenge never gets any easier.”
Despite World Rugby pumping about $24 million into the Pacific region over the last four years, Samoa and Tonga have already been eliminated from this World Cup and Fiji are likely to follow them.
Tonga gave a huge scare to Pool C rivals France on the way to a 23-21 defeat in Kumamoto on Sunday, but Samoa have struggled in Pool A and were bundled out with a 38-19 loss to hosts Japan.
Even if Fiji can upset Wales at Oita Stadium on Wednesday, they would have to rely on either the Welsh or Australia losing their last pool games against emerging rugby nations Uruguay and Georgia respectively.
The Pacific islands were represented in the quarter-finals of the World Cup three times before rugby went professional in 1995, but only Fiji in 2007 have reached the knockout stages since then.
So McKee naturally hopes Fiji and Samoa, who play Ireland on Saturday, can stand up and scalp their tier one opponents to make a statement to the world.
“Certainly, it’s important,” he said.
“The Pacific is still a massive source of top level players for rugby globally.
“So it’s really important for the game at domestic and international level that the islands remain strong because that helps provide the pathway for these players to come through.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Hugh Lawson)