Autumn Nations Cup: move for inclusion, Covid-19 response or just a cash grab?

By Robert Morrisey

Covid-19 has had a massive impact on all aspects of life as we know, and this is no different when it comes to international rugby. The pandemic has called into question whether we could have a traditional autumn test series between the northern and southern hemisphere. The answer was no.

And when that answer was known, the six nations and world rugby got right to work to create the brand new ‘Autumn Nations Cup’. The competition sees the traditional six nations teams joined by Georgia and Fiji for a brand new, two pool competition for the autumn internationals.

First and foremost, before I delve into the other potential aspects of the Autumns Nations Cup, it must be understood as, primarily, a Covid-19 Response. Earlier this year as the first wave was in full force it was rumoured that the southern hemisphere teams would not be travelling north for autumn internationals due to domestic Covid-19 lockdowns but also high R-rates in the northern hemisphere.

This was confirmed and caused a massive headache for the northern hemisphere unions. Firstly, this would impact on the squads and players; no internationals means no development for the squad and for the Lions tour, it would cause a headache when it comes to squad selection.

But the undoubtedly bigger concern was financial. Unions are reliant on these internationals to make a decent proportion of their yearly income and with the impact of Covid-19 already and the missing of the summer tests, they needed to do something.

So a competition with the Six Nations (England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France and Italy) would be matched with originally Japan, but later Georgia after Japan couldn’t travel, and Fiji. Now on the face of it, this doesn’t look like a bad thing at all, especially in the meantime and as a way to recoup some of those potentially lost streams of revenue. But the issue is what is the plan going forward?

Unions are reliant on these internationals to make a decent proportion of their yearly income

Is this a one-off tournament just to deal with the Covid-19 effects of is this going to be an annual thing. If so, it may not be what is best of Rugby. The whole idea seems similar to that of the Nations League from the world of football, and whilst that was just replacing meaningless international friendlies and packaging them in a way to make more money, this autumn nations cup would be replacing test rugby.

The autumn internationals are famous for seeing the south come north and being host to some of the most exciting rugby in a year, do we want to lose that? The ending of test rugby for a more packageable set of games, which this appears to be, does rip something away from the heart of rugby.

It takes away the last remanence of amateurism and community in place of mere commerce. Why would we want to see the six nations rehashed with a few more teams instead of England vs South Africa, Wales vs Australia and Ireland vs the All Blacks?

The other issue is with the notion that this represents a benevolent plan to try and get tier two nations more in the fold. That is simply not the case. Georgia were an afterthought. When Japan had to withdraw because of coronavirus, that’s when Georgia got their chance, even though they are ranked two places above Italy internationally.

There would have been no conversation to whether Italy should be in or not because they’re already in the fold, yet Georgia had to wait for someone else to drop out to get their shot. That does not exactly strike me as an attempt at genuine inclusion. If they wanted to genuinely mix with tier two nations more, which is good for the long-term health of the game, they should use the autumn internationals to tour.

The ending of test rugby for a more packageable set of games does rip something away from the heart of rugby.

There are ways that this could be easily facilitated. For instance, England could tour South America or Wales the Pacific Islands. This would get the tier two nations more involved and improve the standard of rugby. It would also spread the rugby money wider and this could be packaged well to make as much money as possible because it would represent an exciting prospect.

Overall, the response of the Cup to Covid-19 is good and needed, however, if it lingers on afterwards it could be seen to be another disease for the game to have to deal with.

Image: Sum_of_Marc via Creative Commons

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