Opinion: Another nonsensical decision as Rugby Championship application by Fiji, Japan but rejected by Sanzaar

Josua Tuisova of Fiji scores his team’s third try during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between Wales and Fiji at Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux on September 10, 2023 in Bordeaux, France. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Sanzaar is proving itself to be the Goldilocks of world rugby, except perhaps that it may never come up with a plan that is just right.

For too long its vision was too ambitious – it wanted Super Rugby to expand too far, too quickly to the point where it ultimately collapsed under its own weight.

Now that it has all but rejected an application by Fiji and Japan to join the Rugby Championship from 2026, it is clear its vision is too conservative, self-protective and possibly even self-destructive.

Of all the mad, infuriatingly nonsensical, compromised, self-serving decisions Sanzaar has made, this one sits as possibly the least fathomable and serves to best illustrate why rugby needs to clean out its old-boy executive class and usher in a new breed of younger leaders, who don’t get tied up in backroom politics and cook up dumb ideas after a few too many in the pub.

What makes the decision to keep Fiji and Japan out of the Southern Hemisphere showpiece event nonsensical is that both nations are going to be invited into the Nations Championship when it kicks off in 2026.

They will be deemed worthy of inclusion in the global showpiece – a tournament that the Six Nations and Sanzaar are desperately hoping is going to net them a fortune in broadcast revenue and save them from financial ruin – but not considered good enough to play in the Rugby Championship.

It’s like getting a PhD in astrophysics from Harvard, only to be told you are not qualified to do an undergraduate degree in marketing at Waikato University.

Normally, in Rugby Land, greed wins the day. If there is a buck to be made in the short term, that will spin all sorts of wheels.

And this is why keeping Fiji and Japan out of the Rugby Championship for another five years is hard to understand, as it will endanger their ability to add any value to the Nations Championship – which is the ultimate victory to short-termism and greed.

This new competition is going to be sold to the world as the best playing the best – a pseudo-Rugby World Cup with drama, intrigue and nail-biting contests, and yet the reality is going to be somewhat different and massively disappointing because Fiji and Japan are going to be soundly thumped in most tests.

The promise of edge-of-the seat rugby won’t be delivered and, in time, the broadcast value of the Nations Championship will decline – and rugby administrators will once again have proven their ability to turn wine into water.

How can it be any other way when Fiji and Japan will be preparing for tests against Ireland, France and England by playing fixtures against Tonga, the USA, Samoa and the Pacific Nations Cup?

It would, quite obviously, be better for the Nations Championship if Fiji and Japan were playing New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and South Africa in the Rugby Championship, so they can become conditioned to tough tests, grow in stature and understanding and ultimately become genuine top-tier rugby nations.

This is sports management 101 and yet again Sanzaar is going to fail, and Fiji and Japan, as well as Samoa and Tonga, are going to have to keep rocking in the foetal position, eternally wondering why the wider Pacific region can’t have rugby leaders with a vision to grow the sport with a sensible and considered long-term plan.

But alas, why think big when there is so much petty stuff to be consumed by?

It is understood Australia are upset by New Zealand and South Africa having secretly plotted to rekindle old fashioned tours and longer test series against one another.

Argentina are supposedly still miffed about the refusal to move the dates of the Rugby Championship to enable their players to have some kind of pre-season and not play all year round, and all four nations are concerned about Fiji’s lack of commercial strength.

Through a combination of spite and fear, Fiji and Japan will be punished and Southern Hemisphere rugby will keep the Pacific Islands in purgatory.

The simple point that Sanzaar doesn’t appear able to grasp is that Fiji will never be commercially ready to play in the Rugby Championship, but their value to the tournament will not come in the form of sponsors and broadcast dollars – but in the more valuable currency of a compelling brand of rugby that will bring more eyeballs.

Given how many top-tier nations have poached Fijian talent in the last two decades, there is surely an appreciation even on Planet Sanzaar that this is a nation with the most extraordinary rugby potential if simply given a fair chance to prove it.

Japan’s fate is to seemingly be forever kept as New Zealand’s secret ATM – an October getaway destination for the All Blacks to play one-off meaningless tests for cash all the while dangling the carrot that one day an invite to the Rugby Championship may be on the way.

If there isn’t a revolution in the various boardrooms, Southern Hemisphere rugby won’t ever have the Goldilocks moment when everything is considered just right.

Gregor Paul is one of New Zealand’s most respected rugby writers and columnists.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication.