The Rugby Football Union has been urged to back radical plans to raise up to £250 million by staging a special World Cup-style tournament in the UK and Ireland next summer to ease the financial crisis facing the global game caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
It is understood draft proposals for a 16-team invitational tournament, to be held in June and July next year, have been submitted to both World Rugby and the RFU for consideration, with a working title of the ‘Coronavirus Cup of World Rugby’.
The competition, the centrepiece of a financial rescue plan independently drawn up by former RFU chief executive Francis Baron, is based on the template used for the 2015 World Cup in England – but would involve matches played at the national stadiums of each of the four Home Unions.
Staging the tournament, which would involve 31 matches over six weeks, would require the postponement of the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa from July next year to the summer of 2022 to minimise the disruption on the professional club tournaments in both the northern and southern hemisphere.
However, Baron, who put together the RFU’s successful bid to host the 2015 tournament, said it was necessary to take “exceptional measures to deal with an exceptional crisis”.
The RFU has predicted it will lose £107m in revenue if the autumn internationals are cancelled because of coronavirus, while the southern hemisphere unions are also braced for crippling losses if matches are cancelled or played behind closed doors.
Baron said 100 per cent of the profits of the tournament would be distributed to the participating unions to support both the professional and community games. A family support fund would also be established for those in the rugby family globally who have lost loved ones to the virus. It would be administered by an independent charitable trust.
“The RFU should take a leadership position and propose to other major unions and World Rugby that a special one-off tournament be held in the UK and Ireland in June and July next year,” Baron told Telegraph Sport.
“Its key selling point is that all the money raised would be for keeping the game of rugby alive around the world.
“I have talked to one or two senior colleagues and they all think the country would get right behind it, as they did with the tournament in England in 2015.
“I think the four Home Unions would support it because a number of big matches would be held in each of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
“The key will be winning the support of the southern hemisphere unions but with everyone facing horrendous financial challenges, this is a bold and ambitious plan to raise large amounts of new cash from which they will be major beneficiaries.
“The 2015 World Cup in England generated net profits for the game of around £400m. I believe this proposed special event could generate a net profit for distribution to unions of £200-250m. This would be in addition to the £80m World Rugby support funding package already in place for the global game.”
World Rugby is currently engaged in discussions with unions about how to reschedule the postponed Six Nations matches and summer tours because of the Covid-19 lockdown as well as talks about realigning the global calendar.
Baron, however, insisted now was not the right time to focus on restructuring the global game given the “potential financial tsunami” which he fears that without urgent action “could sweep away some of our unions and many of our community clubs”.
He also stated that the unions and clubs should abandon attempts to complete this season’s fixtures, given the negative impact it could have on next year.
“Reviving proposals on restructuring the game and our competitions should be put on ice until the battle with the virus has been won,” added Baron, who was RFU chief executive for 12 years before retiring in 2010.
“The absolute and only priority should be providing cash support to all levels of the global game to ensure survival. When the house is on fire the priority is not to discuss changing the decoration in the living room.
“The overriding issue at the moment should be cash support and survivability. The overriding problem to be solved is that of providing substantial levels of new cash funding for both unions and clubs.
“In this context I believe we need a bigger, bolder and more ambitious plan than anything currently on the table. We need to aim to ensure not only that the game survives intact but that we come out the other side financially stronger with all elements of the game rebuilding their reserves for the future.
“I have enormous sympathy for the new RFU CEO (Bill Sweeney) and all the other CEOs of the major unions facing this crisis. I have no doubt they are giving everything they have to ensure their union’s survival and they have my total support. I also have no doubt they will all support and ensure implementation of this proposal as it will underpin their own valiant efforts at supporting the game in their countries.”
The draft schedule for the tournament would offer invitations to world champions South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, Japan, England, France, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, USA and Canada.
“The proposal to hold it in the UK and Ireland is a hard-nosed commercial decision,” Baron added. “The two markets likely to generate the maximum revenues are the UK/Republic of Ireland and France.
“France is currently working hard on its plans for the World Cup in 2023 and these should not be disturbed. The UK has the benefit of England’s successful 2015 template which can be ‘dusted off’ and rolled out quickly.
“The June/July window is far preferable from a weather point of view, the availability of soccer stadiums and the minimising of disruption to professional league and cup competitions and the international match programme.
“One that will not just help the RFU but also all our fellow unions around the world who are in similar financial difficulties. Time is short but we can do this. To use the famous Second World War dictum what is needed is ‘Action this Day’.”