It just gets "betterer and betterer"
Crusaders v Munster, Force v Ulster.....starting to feel a Rugby drool coming on

World challenge on IRB agenda

By Wayne Smith, The Australian
March 01, 2007

WHICH is the best provincial rugby side in the world? The Crusaders? Munster? Waratahs? Bulls? Brumbies? Biarritz?

What until now has been no more than a lively topic for bar-room debate could become a central element of a radically reworked global program, with the International Rugby Board discussing the idea of a world provincial championship at its executive board meeting in Auckland next week.

Admittedly, it will be a meeting given over to what IRB head of communications, Greg Thomas, described as "blue sky thinking", when any and every idea that might contribute to more meaningful rugby around the world will be up for discussion.

Australian Rugby Union chief executive Gary Flowers, who will attend the meeting, said yesterday the idea of a world provincial championship, staged every three years in the November window normally allocated to the tours of the northern hemisphere by Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, had not previously been flagged.

One suggestion was that the championship would involve the top half-dozen teams from the Super 14 and the Heineken Cup, the European equivalent of the southern hemisphere competition, won last year by Munster in a tight final against Biarritz.

"I'm sure SANZAR would have to have a look at the proposal but we have an open mind on the concept," Flowers said.

Also on the agenda will be a proposal to make the June Tests and the tour internationals, which at the moment are nothing more than glorified friendlies, into games with real meaning.

One suggestion is that the matches will form part of an unofficial world championship, but that appears unworkable since the game already has world rankings and a four-yearly World Cup.

A more viable proposition is the idea advanced 15 months ago by the ARU to create an informal structure covering the June and November Tests, with points awarded on results.

Those points then would determine the World Cup seedings, which has the dual advantage of restoring relevance to Test matches while also avoiding the farcical situation at this year's tournament in France where England, as defending champion, will go in as the top seed despite having slumped to seventh on the world rankings.

"Our primary position is that we believe Test matches have to be maintained as the supreme product," Flowers said.

"There was a trend developing with the inbound Tests for countries to rest players and not bring in their top squads.

"The Rugby World Cup is having such an impact on the game that Test matches are being affected and that can't be allowed to continue. Making Tests a means of determining the World Cup seedings is our proposal for restoring their importance and ensuring all countries treat them with respect."

The IRB also will consider a proposal to do away with the piecemeal qualifying pool system to determine which minor nations gain entry to the World Cup.

Over the past two years, 86 qualifying matches have been held around the world in the European, American, African, Asian and Oceania zones to allocate the final positions in the tournament in France.

Instead, the IRB is considering bringing together the leading second-tier nations for a single tournament to decide the eight countries to advance to the main draw of the World Cup.

The dilemma of how to work Argentina into a formal competition will be discussed in Auckland. There now seems no likelihood of the Six Nations tournament being extended by another fortnight to accommodate the Pumas, which means the Tri-Nations is Argentina's last best hope.

Although the Argentine government is lobbying the three SANZAR partners for the Pumas' admission to the Tri-Nations, the matter has not been officially discussed. Flowers, as SANZAR secretary, said he was prepared to add it to the agenda for the next meeting in April.