The Rugby World Cup will remain the preserve of a handful of top sides and will fail to evolve unless players from smaller nations are properly rewarded, international players chief Omar Hassanein told AFP.
The 41-year-old Australian – chief executive of the Dublin-based International Rugby Players association – is in talks with World Rugby to ensure tier-two governing bodies prioritise their financial obligations to the players.
He fears that unless action is taken, increasingly attractive offers from Japanese or European clubs will lure players away from Test rugby altogether, further harming the competitiveness of the international game.
Tier-one nations include all the sides who play in the northern hemisphere Six Nations competition such as England and France and the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship, featuring the likes of New Zealand and Australia.
The list of tier-two sides includes Canada, Japan and Pacific Island nations Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.
“We are in discussions with World Rugby about trying to enforce measures to ensure that tier-two governing bodies always meet their commitment to their athletes as a first priority,” he told AFP.
“Ideally this consists of putting collective bargaining frameworks in place, consisting of standardised employment terms and also high performance requirements.”
Hassanein, who played for storied Sydney club Randwick as well as Super Rugby heavyweights the Waratahs, said his organisation had witnessed at first hand the problems over unpaid players at both club and international levels.
“In the last year alone, we have players from places like Italy, Romania, Kenya, the Pacific Islands and other places coming to us with serious contractual difficulties or even not getting paid. It’s not good enough.”
The Pacific Islands give him particular concern. They churn out talent but are short of financial resources.
“There is no doubt the Pacific Islands are exposed,” he said.
“Contracts that provide more certainty and consistency, both in employment terms and in fixtures offered to them, would keep them more focused on international Test rugby.”
The Rugby Football Union last year said it would pay Samoa £75,000 ($99,000) as a goodwill gesture before a match between England and Samoa at Twickenham following a similar payment made to Fiji the previous year.
Tongan players claimed earlier this year they had not been paid while competing in the Pacific Nations Cup.
Hassanein admits there is no easy solution as most of tier-two sides come from commercially weak areas in terms of TV revenue and sponsorship, but says if such matters are not fixed the talent drain will continue.
“There is the issue of player motivation and not just because we represent them but also in the interests of the international game more holistically,” he said.
“We are concerned that if players in tier-two countries continue to become disenfranchised with their local governing body, coupled with the ever-increasing money on offer in the European and Japanese club system, that rugby could become a club-driven game overshadowing the international game, which should always be the flagship.”
Such an outcome would spell disaster for efforts to make World Cup – being hosted by tier-two nation Japan next year – more unpredictable.
Argentina reached the 2007 semi-finals, repeating the feat in 2015, but on the whole the make-up of the quarter-finals and semi-finals has been fairly predictable since the first World Cup in 1987.
“We want to break that tradition of the usual eight teams making the quarter-finals,” said Hassanein.
“Football, I admit, is a very different sport but not all the best teams qualify for the World Cup finals and even some who are in the lower reaches of the top 20 can reach the latter stages (England were ranked 12th and Croatia ranked 20th when they met in the semi-finals in July).
We want to aspire for 14-16 teams being competitive enough to reach the quarter-finals.”
He said he believes there is a desire to succeed across different federations but says it boils down to a question of respect.
“The areas we can control are that players have more mutually respectful relationships with their national governing body. Therefore they feel more aligned with them, and their interests in the national jersey then always take precedence over the club.”
© Agence France-Presse (additional edits from Chris Kelleher)