PARIS – Toutai Kefu – the World Cup-winning Wallabies forward turned long-serving Tongan coach – believes World Rugby’s decision to vote through the Nations Championship will slow the progress of the game’s developing nations.
His comments come as long-time coach Gary Gold described the shutting out of tier-two nations as “scandalous”, while former All Black turned Samoan World Cup playmaker Lima Sopoaga issued a powerful statement, saying the decision “undermines the spirit of inclusivity that rugby is supposed to stand for.”
After years of trying to usher through a global calendar, the World Rugby Council voted through the Nations Championship on Tuesday in Paris. The vote passed 41 to 10, with a minimum of 39 needed.
Within hours, World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont crowned the new global calendar the “last piece of the jigsaw” and “the most significant development in the sport since the game went professional.”
“A new era is about to begin for our sport. An era that will bring certainty and opportunity for all. An era that will support the many, not the few and an era that will supercharge the development of the sport beyond its traditional and often self-imposed boundaries. All boats will rise together,” Beaumont trumpeted.
One of the key developments from the global calendar is the introduction of a Nations Championship to be played every two years.
From 2026, it will see six teams from the north (the Six Nations) and six from the south (the four nations playing in The Rugby Championship, plus two more likely coming from Japan and Fiji) play five matches in the July and November international windows across two pools with the top-ranked side to meet in a final.
Meanwhile, a second division made up of tier-two teams will play in the second division.
From 2030, promotion and relegation will commence in the tournament.
The new competition has been introduced to ensure that every Test has tangible significance and, therefore, can be packaged up and sold to broadcasters for more.
At the same time, World Rugby has promised that there will be a 50 per cent rise in Tests played between tier-one and tier-two sides.
Yet, as World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin said, nothing is set in stone.
“No agreement has been signed, principles agreed on how those fixtures can be allocated but [there is] a lot more work to do,” Gilpin told reporters.
Rugby Australia chairman welcomed the move.
“The fact that we’ve got the north and the south linking up for the first time ever is a great breakthrough,” McLennan told The Roar.
Others, however, are more sceptical and believe the new competition could do more harm than good, especially in light of the improved performances from emerging nations like Portugal, who beat Fiji, and Samoa, who lost by one-point to semi-finalists England.
“It certainly doesn’t suit us,” Kefu told The Roar.
“I think it’s totally all about money.
“They [the emerging nations] would be feeling like it’s a bit of a private club this rugby game.
“They’re [Portugal and Uruguay] two really good examples where World Rugby should be concentrating on throwing some resources in. Now, I think they will keep them competitive, but at the end of the day, we need to play more games and we need to spend more time together.
“But, in saying that, we need to have our best players play for us on a consistent basis and I just can’t see that this new competition will allow that.”
Kefu fears that some of the best talent in the Pacific teams won’t risk making themselves available for Tests against sides ranked well outside the top 10 given they lose money by playing for their nations.
“If you dig a little deeper, how are teams like Samoa and Tonga going to recruit the better players because people like Charles [Piutau], the Fifitas, they’re not going to come to play against teams like Spain and Namibia.
“After this World Cup, we could have a host of new players available to us. Richie Mo’unga will leave the All Blacks, [Shannon] Frizell will leave, [Folau] Fakatava becomes available to us. Ngani Laumape is available to us next year. So, we’ve got a host of new players now that are going to help us compete, but I don’t know if they’re going to come to play, to tell you the truth. They might just wait it out till the next World Cup.”
Kefu did, however, admit that the expansion of the Pacific Nations Cup to include the United States of America and Canada would ensure the likes of Tonga get more scheduled Tests each year.
But the former Wallabies No.8 reiterated his concern that without more Tests against tier-one nations, it would be harder to build their sides ahead of World Cup campaigns.
“This competition allows us to spend more time together and it gives us more games, but it probably doesn’t give us the harder games,” he said.
“Some of the windows they’re proposing, I just don’t think we can get access to our players. Now, most of these plays that I mentioned earlier, they’re on big contracts and to get access to them for games against Portugal and Namibia, I just don’t think we can get access to it.
“So, we’re going to have to play a lot of those games without those players. That’s going to be an issue for us.
“But I do think more time and more games, even though they’re tier-two games, it will help us in the long run. But what we do need more of is those tight, intense games where it’s a bit of an arm-wrestle, and they’re tier-one games and they’re the moments we need to keep playing in to help us improve.”
Gold, who was an assistant with the Springboks and the former US Eagles head coach, was far more scathing.
“It is utterly and totally ridiculous. It is not progressive at all,” Gold told City A.M.
“When the accusations come towards the powers that be of them being an old boys’ club trying to look after themselves, it is difficult not to believe that is the case.
“It seems like the boys’ club is looking after the boys. I cannot see another explanation to this. It is just nonsense.
“There are teams like Romania, the United States, Canada, Spain and Uruguay who have big ambitions and want to grow. And they’re not going to grow, this is the bottom line.
“Playing Fiji, Tonga and Canada [for Tier Two] nations is all fair and well, you will get better, but you’re not putting yourself in a position to significantly improve.
“It is scandalous. I read something where Nick Easter [former England No8] said rugby was one of the worst-run sports in the world and I am struggling to disagree with him.”
Sopoaga, who recently became eligible for Samoa after jostling with Dan Carter at the All Blacks in 2015, said World Rugby’s decision to vote through the Nations Cup was at odds to their unification pledge to build and grow the game.
“As a Samoan rugby player, I am deeply frustrated and disappointed by the World Council decision to exclude smaller nations like Samoa and Tonga from the upcoming Nations Championship,” Sopoaga posted on social media.
“This move not only hinders our progress but undermines the spirit of inclusivity that rugby is supposed to stand for.
“The Nations championship was supposed to be a beacon of hope for smaller rugby playing nations. It offered us a chance to compete with some of the giants of the sport, to test our mettle and to show the world what we are made of.
“We were excited about the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with teams like the All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies, but now that dream has been shattered.
“The decision to exclude us from this competition is a stark reminder of the power imbalances in world rugby.
“This decision privileges the interests of the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship. And it’s disheartening to see those interests hold more sway than the dreams and aspirations of smaller nations.
“This decision may protect their competitions, but it comes at the cost of stifling the growth and potential of countries like Samoa and Tonga.
“The decision makers need to remember that the heart of rugby lies in the diversity of its participants, and the unity of its global rugby community.
Rugby is more than just a sport in Samoa. It’s a way of life generations of Samoan players have poured their hearts and souls into representing our nation on the rugby field.
“We’ve faced adversity and challenges and we’ve strived to make a name for ourselves on the global stage. This decision feels like a slap in the face to all that hard work.
“This exclusion not only impacts our chances of improvement but also affects the young talents in our nations who aspire to be the next great rugby players.
“It sends a discouraging message that their dreams are not as important as those of larger nations.
“It’s a betrayal of the very essence of rugby, which should be about respect inclusion and fair play.
“We’re not asking for charity. We are asking for an equal chance to compete to prove our worth on the field and to develop the sport in our nations.”