“The issue of player load has never been so topical. However, it needs to be properly understood,” says Johnny Sexton. Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

LONDON – World Rugby is riding roughshod over players’ concerns regarding their proposed ‘League of Nations’ 12-team annual competition, world player of the year Johnny Sexton claimed on Thursday.

Sexton, who is the president of the International Rugby Players, slammed the sport’s global governing body for placing commercial interests ahead of player safety. 

Plans for a competition, along the lines of football’s Uefa Nations League, have been mooted principally by World Rugby’s ambitious Argentinian vice-president Agustin Pichot.

The so-called ‘League of Nations’ (on a 12-year deal) is seen as of particular potential benefit in the southern hemisphere, where rugby economies have been struggling.

Sexton, though, made it clear after a conference call on Tuesday of the IRP Council – comprising 40 players with nine of the world’s top 10 nations’ captains taking part – they are not happy at all with the speed at which things are going.

“While players gave this idea a cautious welcome when we met at the end of last year, it now 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 issued by the International Rugby Players.

“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.”

Sexton’s concerns were supported by New Zealand’s skipper Kieran Read and England’s Owen Farrell.

“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,” said Farrell.

“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.” 

There was also alarm expressed over the belief that Tier Two countries would not get a chance to play the elite set of countries due to no relegation or promotion being envisaged.

“For countries in this bracket and for Pacific Islanders in particular, our biggest issue has always been the ‘club versus country’ factor,” said Samoa captain Chris Vui.

“We feel that a 12-year deal is not workable, particularly when it presents no hope of advancement during that period.

“This will have the dangerous knock-on effect of luring senior players away from their countries and more towards the clubs, which is the exact opposite of what we’re all trying to achieve.”

International Rugby Players’ chief executive Omar Hassanein said it was time for World Rugby to acknowledge the players’ concerns, despite being informed about them on several occasions.

“World Rugby are failing to respect the players’ views and genuinely engage on the issues,” said Hassanein.

“It will be interesting to see their approach in the coming weeks knowing the current proposal does not have the players’ support.”

World Rugby expressed their surprise at the vehemence of the comments, and challenged the supposition they had disregarded player welfare.

“Important matters such as playing load and emerging nation opportunities are at the heart of constructive dialogue on the overall concept,” a World Rugby spokesperson said.

They also insisted a new international Test structure would benefit all in the game and attract new audiences.

“A structured annual international competition would deliver significantly greater long-term broadcast revenue for reinvestment in the global game,” he said.

“This project has at its heart long-term growth and stability, not short-term wins, and that includes greater opportunity for players.”

AFP