PARIS – Hamish McLennan has declared World Rugby’s ability to usher through a global calendar and confirm the Nations Championship from 2026 a “great breakthrough”.
The Rugby Australia chairman also declared the decision to expand the World Cup and delay the tournament’s start date by a fortnight as a “massive win” for the game Down Under.
McLennan also described criticism of him, as well as RA chief executive Phil Waugh, remaining in France despite the Wallabies’ early World Cup exit as a “cheap shot”, particularly given the crunch meetings taking place.
The announcement has paved the way to include a Nations Championship, where six teams from the north (the Six Nations team) and south (Rugby Championship, plus two more) will play in a final every alternate year.
The new competitions won’t interfere with the Six Nations or Rugby Championship, with the schedules likely to be condensed. The annual two-Test Bledisloe Cup series will remain, too.
After years of talk about the competition, the announcement was hailed as a “seismic shift” and the “last piece of the jigsaw” by World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont.
The tournament will mean every Test has tangible meaning, with promotion and relegation to be introduced from 2030. A second division funded and run by World Rugby composing 12 teams will also be played in the July and November Test windows.
It’s hoped that the Nations Championship, which will be sold by the respective broadcasters of the Unions, will see an uplift in broadcast revenue and the overall pie, with 60 per cent of the money currently being generated coming from the United Kingdom and France.
The Pacific Nations Cup, which currently only features Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, will also expand to include the United States of America and Canada.
McLennan, who is currently the SANZAAR chairman, hailed the result for the global game as a “massive evolution for the game”.
“We were quietly confident that it would get voted through but you always have a level of trepidation. Yet, it was a resounding success for World Rugby,” McLennan told reporters in Paris.
“We’ve cleaned up the global calendar, creating new competitions and it’s something that we’ve been calling out for years now and to see it arrive is fantastic.
“The fact that we’ve got the north and the south linking up for the first time ever is a great breakthrough.
“Led by [World Rugby CEO] Allan [Gilpin] and Bill [Beaumont], we’ve got a great outcome for the game, and we’ve got some innovation. We’re creating new assets.”
Some have decried the announcement, believing it will hinder the development of emerging nations like Uruguay and Portugal, who took significant steps forward throughout the 2023 World Cup in France.
Beaumont and Gilpin, however, steadfastly disagreed, saying the announcement would not only help grow the overall financial pie but allow for 50 per cent more crossover fixtures with tier-one sides outside of Nations Championship years, while also providing more Tests against their peers too.
“This competition structure from 2026 will provide them (Portugal, Chili etc) guaranteed schedules, particularly against their peers, actually the types of teams they need to be playing against in July and November, on an annual basis,” Gilpin said.
“In addition, the package agreed to today provides for more crossover fixtures, what we used to call tier-one and tier-two fixtures, in the years when this championship isn’t being played than is currently the case.”
McLennan agreed, saying it “actually pulled them together through their own competitions.”
“It gives the opportunity for the better teams to get up and the pressures on the nation’s championship teams to deliver, but I think the most important thing is that you’re creating a platform for all fans globally to watch a new competition.
“The global interest in it, and the commercial opportunities that spin off, whether it be sponsorship or fan engagement, is going to be huge.”
For a nation like Australia, which continually battles for clean air alongside football, the NRL and AFL, McLennan said the concept would help create more interest.
“I think some fans have found it hard to follow the various competitions and so what this does is unify the whole lot together,” he said.
With all six teams of the Six Nations to initially be included in the Nations Championship, SANZAAR will soon commence the Expression of Interest process to fill the final two places in the south.
“We’ll look at who’s out there and decide who’s best,” he said.
It’s believed Fiji and Japan are the front runners to be included, with the latter’s broadcast economy still largely untapped.
It’s hoped that with a stronger competition, with a clear schedule, that broadcasters in Japan will come to the party.
A decision isn’t expected to be imminent.
Meanwhile, despite the 2027 World Cup expanding from 20 to 24 teams, with six pools of four to feature and the top two and the next four highest third-place finishers to progressing to the round of 16, the tournament has been condensed by a week.
McLennan said the announcement would be favoured by broadcasters, with more gamed played over a shorter period.
“Well, we were advocates for it and pushing for it,” McLennan said.
“I think it means a broader competition, it’s going to be more concentrated over that six week period.
“You’ll see more games, potentially games during the week. Everything’s been around the weekend shoulder here, so I think the frequency of games will be really exciting.
“The theory is that you should be able to charge more for your TV rights.
“I think what we missed this year was the US being involved in the competition. Theoretically, you’d hope for rugby playing nations like that can then join the comp and it makes it totally global.
“[Today’s announcement] makes it more international and we can spread it further around the country. So, I think that’s going to add to the festival-like nature of the competition.”
The tournament’s start date has also been pushed back by a fortnight, with the World Cup to start on October 1 and finish on November 13.
It means the tournament won’t clash with the NRL and AFL finals, giving it clean air and allowing for stadiums to be available too.
“That’s a massive win for us too because it means the AFL and the NRL finals will be out of the way and we’ll have clean stadia, big venues and we can spread it right around the country from the get-go,” McLennan said.
Where the World Cup final is played remains to be seen, with Melbourne’s MCG likely ahead of Sydney’s Accor Stadium to host the prized event.
Rugby Australia will host a function on Wednesday to formally launch the start the runway up to the 2027 World Cup, with Beaumont to be in attendance.
The high level meetings come as McLennan comes under a wave of pressure following the Wallabies’ World Cup flop, with the decision to parachute Eddie Jones into the head coaching role falling flat for now.
McLennan said criticism of him remaining in France was rich given the World Rugby meetings.
“I think that’s been a bit of a cheap shot,” he said.
“We had really important meetings today, precursing up to the event tomorrow night. We’ve got a massive event, over 200 people are coming to the Australian Embassy, to formally launch it [the World Cup] with Bill and others to show government representatives what it’s all about.
“We’ve got another massive workshop on Thursday and the networking you do, had we not been here, perhaps we may not have got the result that we got today, in terms of support.”