Gosper dismisses reports of Pacific Islands snub amid World Cup boycott threat

THE PACIFIC ISLANDS’ teams will not be “closed out” of World Rugby’s proposed controversial ‘Nations League’ as some have suggested, the CEO of the sport’s governing body Brett Gosper told AFP.

The 59-year-old Australian said their inclusion in the top division of the two-tier competition — along the lines of football’s Uefa Nations League — would be decided on rankings based on merit alone.

There has been a furious reaction to the report in the New Zealand Herald on Thursday that the Pacific Islands would have no representatives among the 12 teams in the top tier, with Fiji having been replaced by the United States, and that there would be no promotion or relegation for 10 seasons.

A boycott of the sport’s quadrennial showpiece, the World Cup, was mooted by the London-based Pacific Rugby Players Welfare on Friday to include even those of Pacific Island origin playing in other teams. However, Gosper was adamant those fears about being excluded were groundless.

“The two-division competition would provide more player opportunities and ensure financial stability for unions,” said Gosper in an interview conducted by telephone. “Importantly, participation would be merit-based, based on rankings at an agreed time.

“Therefore, there is no question of closing out the Pacific Islands as we would be adding two more emerging unions to the top table whilst financing a second tier competition with all the benefits that would bring to the players.”

The Fiji team in a huddle after their game against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in November 2017. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It is understood that the idea of ring-fencing the membership for at least 10 years is being pushed by the northern hemisphere powerhouses who make up the Six Nations.

Gosper would not comment on that but he did address the claim by Ireland’s World Player of the Year Johnny Sexton — not often given to outspoken remarks — in his role as president of the International Rugby Players that commercial interests were being placed ahead of players’ concerns.

Sexton highlighted the strain that playing five Tests in five weeks in November would place on players in such a bruising contact sport.

“This is a rapidly-evolving, ongoing conversation with all stakeholders and some of the concerns voiced were inaccurate and out of date,” said Gosper.

“For instance, there was talk of playing five weeks in a row in November, but earlier this week we were talking about a fallow period when 10 of the 12 teams would stop playing.”

Indeed Gosper, who has been in his post since July 2012, said the Test workload for players could be less than is the case now. 

“In terms of the impact on players, at the moment Test teams play an average of 12 games a year, this format would have them playing 11 matches a year and only extra matches if they reach the semi-finals and the final,” he said.

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Ireland’s Johnny Sexton. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Gosper is a former player who turned out for Racing 92 in the amateur era while working in advertising in Paris. At the time the club played up their posh image with a series of pranks, including turning out for a French cup final wearing bow ties.

He said fears that the British & Irish Lions tours — already under pressure to trim their length — would be hit, were also wide of the mark.

“Lions tours would not be affected as we plan for a lighter programme in those years; the spotlight would be firmly on the Lions,” said Gosper.

Gosper insisted the World Cup would not suffer even though New Zealand’s 2011 World Cup winning coach Graham Henry said the league would be like a mini World Cup and kill off interest in the main event.

“We do not think so,” said Gosper. “Analysis confirms a more competitive international game, and therefore Rugby World Cup, would heighten the possibility of expanding the tournament to 24 teams.

“It certainly would not erode the special and unique atmosphere of a Rugby World Cup and it could also act as a qualification vehicle.” 

© – AFP, 2019

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