A Global Rugby Forum hosted by the International Rugby Board in Woking, England, concluded on Thursday evening with the establishment of a series of measures that are designed to continue the phenomenal growth of rugby. This includes the latest blueprint for the playing calendar of the game.
Dr. Syd Millar, the outgoing IRB chairman, said: “The measures were formulated after 30 hours of robust and constructive debate over three days among the 90 delegates from all the major rugby stakeholders from all over the world.
“When you examine the outcomes it is clear that the Forum concluded, after much debate and study, that the existing calendar is still the best vehicle for the game and that with some modifications it will allow plenty of scope for the continued growth of rugby.
“With the agreements we made the Forum delegates have strengthened the basic structure of the calendar in the short term, while at the same time laying solid foundations for future change and growth. The stress areas in the calendar have now been fixed, and in particular the June Test window. We would expect to see further changes to the playing schedule start in 2012 at the latest.
He added: “The issue of the playing calendar is very complex and includes the varying requirements of clubs, provinces and national unions, the fact that we have separate playing seasons in the two hemispheres, player welfare requirements and large distances between some of the senior playing countries.
“Finding tenable solutions that allow for growth while not potentially damaging or cannibalising the game’s existing financial structures has been a challenge.
“As we hoped, the Forum has forged stronger ties and relationships between the various stakeholders, including the clubs and their respective national unions. This will augur well for the future as we must ensure that we continue to work together in order to continue rugby’s growth and to ensure that it remains relevant and vibrant at all levels of the game.”
The Forum agreed:
• To adopt improved player welfare standards through the implementation of a minimum of 10 weeks player rest and pre-season conditioning as a building block of the calendar going forward
• To further study two formats that would enhance the value and prestige of the Inter-Hemisphere Matches in the June and November Test windows and to agree their implementation in 2008
• To cap the number of annual Tests that would attract automatic player release to 11 per year and that the English and French professional club seasons will finish by May 31 each year thus ensuring full strength international squads for the June Tests. These agreements highlight the continued improvement in the relationship between club and country in the Northern Hemisphere
• The full integration of Argentina into the senior International calendar and the basis of a four-year transition programme to achieve that aim
• New initiatives and new competition structures that will aid the development of the emerging nations
• A permanent Rugby World Cup window of September-October
All of this was only possible because of the input of all of the rugby stakeholders over the three days and the willingness of all to put all of their issues on the table, to listen to the viewpoints of others and to make concessions where necessary in order to achieve advancements in the best interests of the game as a whole.
The players played a key role in the agreement to build enhanced player welfare requirements into the international calendar. Richie McCaw, Agustin Pichot, Pierre Spies, Olivier Brouzet and International Rugby Players’ Association representatives Richard Harry and Rob Nichol confirmed the crucial importance of a stand down period of at least 10 weeks to ensure suitable time for player rest and pre-season conditioning.
The Forum agreed that a fundamental building block of the international calendar would be a minimum of 10 weeks away from competitive rugby each year for each player to be used for rest, rehabilitation and pre-season conditioning and that individual player management programmes should be put in place during the season.
The delegates agreed early on the need to strengthen and add value to the June and November Test windows in order to see those windows continue their growth and development.
The delegates asked the IRB to further explore two potential options to achieve this which arose out of the work of the Forum – a series format which would give ranking points to existing matches and could culminate in a grand final and a 12 team pool format run over two years between Rugby World Cups.
The representatives of the national unions and the French and English clubs helped to ensure that the development of these ideas could become a reality by ensuring space within the calendar. Two key agreements will ensure that additional meaning and value can be added to the June and November Tests.
The first was the agreement to cap the number of Tests that would be played subject to Regulation 9 to 11 each year thus giving certainty and clear windows for the English and French clubs in particular to plan and run their seasons.
The second was the agreement of the French and English clubs to end their seasons by May 31 each year therefore ensuring the best players will be available to play in the June Test window.
The Argentinian delegates worked tirelessly with the major unions and the IRB to build and agree a blueprint for the future which through a four-year transition programme will lead to the full integration of Argentina into the senior international playing calendar. This would mean that Argentina will play the same number of top class Tests as the other Tier 1 unions.
The Forum agreed that the Pumas’ future lies in the Southern Hemisphere. However, in the short term there are major hurdles to the integration of Argentina into the Southern playing structure because the majority of their top players are based in Europe which leads to many practical and player welfare issues.
However, the UAR made a commitment to have its players contracted to the union and for the majority of its players to be based in Argentina by 2012.
The Forum agreed to assist Argentina to put in place pathways to get the players back to Argentina and to develop the next generation of home-grown Argentinian players, the majority of whom will hopefully play their top flight rugby based in Argentina. This includes looking at new competition structures in Argentina, the Americas and elsewhere.
This transition programme for Argentina includes:
• Steadily increasing the number and calibre of Test matches the Pumas play between 2008 and 2010 (2011 being a Rugby World Cup year) from the present six to nine per year
• The Pumas to play four Tests in the June window (instead of the current three), three in the November window and two during the European Six Nations window. This follows the agreement of the French and English clubs to release players during the Six Nations window for the next three years
• The progressive development of professional rugby structures in Argentina during this period to develop player depth and to ensure that eventually the majority of top class players stay in Argentina to play their rugby so that Argentina can be fully integrated into the Southern top flight rugby playing structure
The Forum also looked at the important issue of the development of emerging nations and felt that competitions will play a major role in this in Oceania, Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe.
The forum agreed that the IRB should continue its policy of developing high level domestic and cross-border competition structures and high performance initiatives and build on the new and successful tournament structures that have been established for these nations over the past two years by the IRB.
The forum was managed on behalf of the IRB by Capgemini, an internationally renowned IT services and business consultancy company utilising its Accelerated Solutions Environment.
Attending the historic Forum were IRB Council members and representatives from IRB Member Unions, Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR), Premier Rugby Limited (PRL), European Rugby Cup (ERC), Celtic League, SANZAR, Six Nations and Pacific Islands Rugby Alliance (PIRA), as well as players, coaches, managers, IRB management and commercial agents and consultants.