Global stars including England captain Owen Farrell and Ireland fly-half Johnny Sexton have warned of serious player welfare and integrity concerns over World Rugby’s proposed new competition structure.
The International Rugby Players’ Council held a detailed conference call this week that included nine of the world’s top 10 Test team captains dialling in.
A new global season is due to kick off next year, running until 2032.
Discussions, meanwhile, have also taken place about a new World League that would combine 12 international sides from both hemispheres in a competition running through summer and autumn and culminating with play-offs and a final.
The IRPC said players were “united in their concern” about issues such as player-load challenges from playing multiple Tests across different time zones in consecutive weeks, increased conflicts between club and country demands, plus potential impact on the World Cup and British and Irish Lions tours.
The IRPC also claimed that promotion and relegation will not form part of the new proposal, saying it would prevent Tier Two and emerging nations from accessing top level competitive matches.
It is understood that any World League would have the intention of featuring England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina, plus Japan and the United States, who could be invited to join the Rugby Championship.
But if no promotion and relegation is sanctioned, then it could mean countries like Georgia, Samoa, Fiji and Tonga being isolated.
“It seems like a commercial deal on the future of the game is being negotiated at a rapid pace with little consideration given to the important points we raised with World Rugby in November,” Sexton said, in a statement released by the IRPC.
“The issue of player-load has never been so topical. However, it needs to be properly understood.
“To suggest that players can play five incredibly high-level Test matches in consecutive weeks in November is out of touch and shows little understanding of the physical strain this brings.”
Farrell, meanwhile, added: “Players are definitely open to discussing a new global season, but what we develop has to work with the club game in order to reduce conflict, deal with player release issues and make sure their welfare is looked after.
“The proposal presented to us at the moment doesn’t seem to have considered this properly and shows no signs of improving this already difficult situation.”
And New Zealand skipper Kieran Read said: “After listening to the issues raised by many of the players, we need to be very careful that we balance the commercial needs of the game with the player welfare needs and ensure the quality and integrity of matches meets expectations.
“Fans want to see meaningful games. They don’t want to see fatigued players playing a reduced quality of Rugby as part of a money-driven, weakened competition that doesn’t work for the players or clubs.
“With new technologies, new broadcast deals and new money coming into the sport, this is a crucial moment for Rugby and one that many players are generally excited about.
“However, we have to make sure that the integrity of the game and welfare of the players is protected.”
International Rugby Players chief executive Omar Hassanein confirmed player views had been conveyed to World Rugby on several occasions.
He said: “World Rugby are failing to respect the players’ views and genuinely engage on the issues.
“It will be interesting to see their approach in the coming weeks, knowing the current proposal does not have the players support.”
World Rugby said its commitment to player welfare matters is “unwavering.”
In a statement, the sport’s governing body said: “World Rugby recognises and values the importance of player considerations and input into the annual international competition discussions.
“However, the manner the International Rugby Players (IRP) organisation has expressed these is surprising, given regular engagement throughout this ongoing process.
“World Rugby’s commitment to player welfare matters is unwavering, and we will continue to engage and give full consideration to the welfare of players within the ongoing discussions.
“It is inappropriate to comment on specifics while wider stakeholder consultation, including with IRP, is ongoing.
“However, it is important to note that some assumptions made in the statement regarding the proposed competition structure are inaccurate, and that important matters such as playing load and emerging nation opportunities are at the heart of constructive dialogue on the overall concept.
“As instructed by our executive committee and the Unions, we remain committed to a process of constructive dialogue with all stakeholders, including the IRP, to deliver a model that ensures the best-possible competition and commercial outcomes for all.”
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