Last Tuesday, October 24, days before the final of the 2023 World Cup in France, in which South Africa (Springboks) defeated New Zealand (All Blacks) by 12 to 11, World Rugby announced a series of changes that had been approved by the World Rugby Council, in what they themselves call a historic reform in the calendar of competitions in this sport discipline.
As is to be expected, these changes would not have been possible without modifying some of World Rugby’s regulations. Precisely, in this article we will examine the most important reforms in rugby and the main legal challenges they could have.
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The main reforms
Now, in attention to the aforementioned announcement of October 24, we can point out that the main reforms in rugby are:
1- Creation of a new world competition for men’s rugby:
Perhaps the most important change, or if you will, the one that had the most repercussion, is the creation of a world rugby league for national teams, which will be called Rugby World League and will have 2 divisions.
This new competition will be played every 2 years starting in July 2026. Each division will have the participation of 12 national teams that will be divided into 2 groups of 6 each. The top teams in each group will then play in the grand final to determine the champion.
As expected, the Rugby World League will replace the international windows in July and November. In that sense, in the first division the countries that will participate will be those that currently play in the 6 Nations tournament (France, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy), the Rugby Championship (Argentina, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand) and 2 other teams to be confirmed (most probably Fiji and Japan). Regarding the second division, the teams that will participate are still to be defined.
As regards the format of the new league, it has been established that each country will play 6 matches in the group stage (3 home and 3 away), and that for the grand final between the top 2 of each group, a draw will be made for a single match.
Finally, promotion and relegation between the 2 divisions will begin only in 2030. However, this system has not yet been defined.
2- Increase in the number of participants in the Rugby World Cup:
Indeed, after 40 years of creation of the rugby world cup, back in the distant 1987, the next Rugby World Cup 2027 to be held in Australia, will go from 20 to 24 participating nations that will dispute to obtain the famous Webb Ellis Cup.
This change in the men’s Rugby World Cup is significant, since for the first time there will be a round of 16 after the group stage and not a quarter-final as it has been done. There will be 6 groups of 4 teams each, with the top 2 teams from each group and the 4 best third teams advancing to the round of 16.
Likewise, the new format will allow reducing the time of the competition from 7 to 6 weeks, respecting the minimum time of rest days.
On the other hand, it is important to remember that in December 2020, the Women’s Rugby World Cup has also been extended from 12 to 16 teams for 2025.
3- Modification of Regulation 9:
After a long negotiation between players’ unions, clubs, unions, leagues and federations, World Rugby Regulation 9 has been modified in such a way as to make it easier to release international players, clearly defining release windows and seeking to improve the welfare of athletes through a Workload Guide.
In other words, emphasis has been placed on prioritizing the welfare of rugby players and at the same time increasing the competitiveness of developing unions or federations, such as Uruguay, Chile, Japan, Fiji, Portugal, etc. (to name a few).
For women’s rugby, for the first time, there will be clearly defined release periods for players to avoid overlapping local competitions, with the aim of increasing women’s competition.
The main legal issues
1- Broadcasting rights:
World Rugby will generate considerable revenue following the reforms announced above.
However, the world’s top rugby governing body must negotiate broadcasting rights with the world’s major television networks. This means that there will necessarily be conflicts to be resolved between global, regional and local sponsors, as well as potential intellectual property rights issues.
2- Prevention of doping
When expanding the competition to more nations, both in men’s and women’s, it is imperative that World Rugby initiates a massive campaign to educate athletes to prevent doping, thus protecting the health of athletes and at the same time making the competition fairer.
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It is undeniable the accelerated growth that rugby has been having in recent years, both in men and women, which confirms the good work done by World Rugby for high-level competitions.
However, the main criticism that can be made and has been present for years, is that although rugby continues to grow globally, it is also true that the gap between emerging nations and the group of so-called powers continues to widen. Let us hope that the reforms being implemented today will help to narrow this gap, which would make rugby an even more attractive sport than it already is.
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