Fraser Brown: Rugby has to be careful over Club World Cup concept as demands on players are becoming unsustainable

There is now a real disconnect between the players and those who are running the game

The Club World Cup. It’s an idea that has existed in rugby for a long time. The best of the south against the best of the north. It has been done in rugby league since 1978, the winners of the NRL against the winners of the Super League. Just two teams, one game.

Proposals emerged this week for competition in union, comprising more teams and in a tournament format.

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In theory what’s not to like? I love the idea of a worldwide club competition. Ultimate bragging rights and a chance to perform on the world stage, settling the argument once and for all (or at least for a few years) as to who is the best club team in the world and whose domestic competition is the best.

Stade Rochelais have been European champions in each of the last two seasons but how would they fare in a Club World Cup against the best of the southern hemisphere? (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)Stade Rochelais have been European champions in each of the last two seasons but how would they fare in a Club World Cup against the best of the southern hemisphere? (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Stade Rochelais have been European champions in each of the last two seasons but how would they fare in a Club World Cup against the best of the southern hemisphere? (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

It looks now as if it could be coming to fruition, with 2028 earmarked for the inaugural competition which would then be held every four years. The proposal would see the top eight clubs from that season’s Champions Cup diverted into the new tournament where they would be paired with six teams from Super Rugby and two from Japan. There would be no Champions Cup winner in the years the Club World Cup was played.

The concept I love, how we get there and who’s involved, that’s a different matter.

The idea of taking eight clubs from the Champions Cup, the top six from Super Rugby and then, randomly, the top two from Japan is not, in my eyes, a Club World Cup. A cynic might think that the proposed format is more driven by money and investment possibilities than having the strongest teams across the globe competing to find the best. It’s difficult to look at the quality and consistency in the Japanese league and conclude that it qualifies as one of the strongest leagues in the world.

If you’re going to pick the top two from the Japanese league, then you should be picking the two finalists from every league. So, the Club World Cup would be made up of the finalists from the Premiership, the URC and the Top 14. Then you could justify having two from Japan, and the two best from New Zealand and Australia. It would make more sense and it would be more appealing. In essence, it would make it harder to get into.

Wigan Warriors celebrate their World Club Challenge victoryWigan Warriors celebrate their World Club Challenge victory
Wigan Warriors celebrate their World Club Challenge victory

I realise that professional sport is driven by money but I like the idea of qualifying for the World Cup through the domestic competitions because then you get the strongest teams taking part. It also adds better credence to those claiming to have the strongest and best domestic competition in the world.

Rugby has to be careful here. We have to get this right. Fifa has tried to champion the football Club World Cup over the last 20 years or so, and it hasn’t worked. Manchester City won it this season but there was barely any interest. The four semi-finalists were English, Brazilian, Egyptian and Japanese teams. It’s a money-maker for Fifa, it’s usually played in the Middle East and it’s not the pinnacle of club football. That remains the Champions League. World Rugby needs to ensure that if launched, the Club World Cup is the highest attraction in club rugby across the world, the pinnacle of the club game.

Money is the name of the game in rugby at the minute and without wishing to be overly cynical, rugby’s Club World Cup is a competition that is designed to generate money. But for the competition to be successful and for the sport to survive, rugby needs to sort its product out.

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We’re adding more and more games but we have to remember that rugby is a completely different sport to football. The physical demands on players are completely different. You’ve got to try to protect the players because by protecting the players, you’re protecting the product. You want the very best available to play every game, and the way you do that is to limit the games.

You want your top players to play every game, year after year. You don’t want them tailoring off after two or three seasons due to exhaustion, or missing large chunks of the season due to injuries sustained from overloading. There’s so much rugby being squeezed into the season that it’s simply unsustainable and I think there is now a real disconnect between the players and those who are running the game. I don’t think the administrators understand the physical and mental toll that is put on players.

This isn’t a case of ‘woe is me, isn’t it difficult being a rugby player’. A great many privileges come with playing professional rugby but that doesn’t detract from how hard it is on your body and how tough it is mentally going again and again and again.

The inaugural Club World Cup is scheduled for 2028, a year after the next international World Cup. Theoretically, you could do a whole World Cup pre-season in 2027 off the back of a full 2026-27 season, then go away and play in the World Cup in Australia. If you play in France or England you’d come straight back into the domestic game, play all the way through, play an entire Six Nations - and there will be fewer fallow weeks by 2028 - then return to the league campaign. And if they are going to have a Club World Cup in June it means the leagues need to be completed sooner so there’s even less scope for rest. Domestic seasons will be compressed because they need to be finished by the end of May - that’s three weeks earlier than currently - and then you go straight into the Club World Cup. And after that you are going into the July international Test window. At least you can rest the following summer…unless you are a Lion.

In what way is that sustainable? It’s not good for the players and I think the fans become bored and the product becomes poorer. There is a lot of financial pressure at the moment and a lot of administrators will see this as an opportunity to pump money into a struggling game. It can work and it certainly can be profitable, but let’s get it right.

For me, the Champions Cup was - and probably still is to a certain extent - the best rugby competition in the world outside of the Six Nations. Are we honestly saying we're going to take away from that and create something completely new which hasn’t been tried and tested yet and isn’t based on putting the best club teams in the world into the same competition?

The round of 16 of the Champions Cup served up some really good rugby last weekend. The scheduling could still be better, with games spread out over Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and even Monday nights to make it more of a spectacle. There were five Champions Cup ties on Saturday, all live on TV, but I don’t know many people who have the ability to sit down at 12.30 on a Saturday afternoon and watch all that rugby through to 10 o’clock at night. And then do it again on a Sunday.

But I thought the rugby at the weekend was brilliant and don’t think the proposed new competition should come at the expense of what is the best club tournament in the world.

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There are no easy solutions here. There’s an opportunity for rugby to make the Club World Cup a short, intense tournament. You could make it a destination tournament and you could have three or four games across a week, like you would at an international World Cup. So play it over a three or four-week period, have fans travelling in.

There are a lot of potential moving parts, a lot of different interested parties who will want to have their say and get what they want out of it without conceding anything, so it’ll be interesting to see how it goes forward from here.

I would certainly like the idea more if you took the top two from every domestic competition. I think it would garner more interest and it wouldn’t compromise the Champions Cup.

And even if your team doesn’t qualify, I think supporters would still get behind the team from their league because they are theoretically representing you, and your competition on the world stage.



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