The International Rugby Board are looking at creating a new tournament to replace the increas-ingly flawed end-of-season tours. The board's chairman, Syd Millar, aware of the glut of Test matches in modern rugby, has suggested that a tournament every two years could be the answer. It would be similar to football's European Championship in terms of timing but would feature only the leading nations.
Millar says: "It would enable us to fulfil the needs of unions to produce the necessary finances. There are a lot of Tests now compared to what there used to be. But players have to be paid and rugby is a very expensive game to play, with all the back-up staff.
"We have to look maybe at some other formula rather than just have the southern hemisphere countries coming here in the autumn and playing a few matches and the northern hemisphere sides going to the southern hemisphere in May and June.
"Maybe there is some way of having a proper competitive arrangement without affecting the World Cup."
Millar believes such a tournament could have a multiplicity of advantages. "It would solve many things, such as concern over player welfare and the number of matches. It would create more relevant games and be a more effective way of increasing revenues.
"But people will have to compromise and change to create these things. There is no need to tweak the Six Nations or Tri-Nations to any degree, but we have to look at the autumn internationals and summer tours so there are enough games that generate sufficient revenues."
In a clear warning to many of the leading rugby nations and perhaps also their TV masters, who added more Tri-Nations fixtures to last year's schedule, Millar said: "We have to be very careful not to diminish the value of Tests by having them every day of the week. We have to make them more relevant."
A global season, much touted as the solution to rugby's problems, is not possible, according to the IRB chief. But what he calls an "integrated" season could be within reach if "some radical compromises" were accepted by all countries. He believes such a system could even be in place by the end of his tenure in November 2009.
As 2007 unfolds, the Irishman who heads the IRB insists the game is in robust health. Revenues of more than £80 million are expected from the World Cup this year, the television audience is expected to be more than four billion and 1.8m tickets have already been sold. In 10 yearsthe number of countries playing rugby has increased from 74 to 115. Player numbers worldwide, claims Millar, are up from two to three million. All these things, he says, indicate a huge growth in the game.
But the growing ascendancy of New Zealand troubles him. "It is not good or healthy for rugby to have one or two countries dominating. That is why we give monies to the Tier One [the top level] countries as well as others lower down, to ensure they increase their competitiveness.
"What New Zealand are doing is very simple: playing the ball out of the tackle. The great French sides of the late 1950s and 1960s did exactly that. They rolled round off the back of the line-out and kept the ball alive. What we have had in some European rugby is continuity of possession, but not of play. But produce continuity of play at pace and other teams are put under pressure. Putting people into space by offloading the ball is what New Zealand are doing most effectively. But those are the ways rugby always used to be played. Wales did it in the 1970s, France a little earlier and England, too, a few years ago.
"New Zealand do have exceptional players and they're playing at great pace, which is putting a lot of pressure on opponents. But no one has put them under the kind of pressure you would like to see."
The criticism constantly made against rugby's World Cup is that the growing gap between the major countries and the remainder means it is becoming too predictable. But Millar counters: "This is always chucked at us. People say they can name the semi-finalists at the Rugby World Cup this year. But I can name the four teams who are likely to finish in the top four of the English football Premiership this season. It would be much the same in Spain.
"I believe we now have more competitive teams among the Tier One nations. Ireland and Wales should both be very competitive at this World Cup and I wouldn't dismiss England either, although they are going to have to play a limited game perhaps. But England must remember that power alone isn't enough. Rugby needs skill."
What does Millar want to see at the World Cup in France in the autumn? "Rugby that is attractive and will attract people to watch it; a game that will make people want to play it and make parents want their kids to get involved. Above all, I want it to be a great festival and spectacle of rugby football. The World Cup is an opportunity for the game to show itself to the world."
Ticket prices for the minor games are around £10 to £15. But for the major matches and especially the knockout stages, costs spiral astronomically. Millar says that is simply a fact of life. "Spectator demands are high and you have the same scenario with the Olympics or a football World Cup. Of course it's a concern, but this is a world occasion. You would like to let people in for as little as possible, but those days are gone. Once the game went professional, income had to be generated. That is the way life is."
He bears an equally pragmatic attitude towards television's growing influence. Issues such as excessive matches, as per the Tri-Nations last year, he has addressed. But what of the constant movement of kick-off times? "If we take less money from the TV people, we will have every kick-off at 2.30 on a Saturday. But look at the money they are paying; how would we make up that shortfall? So you have to accept it. They give rugby union a huge amount of their revenues and we have to compromise. That is common sense."
The latter is a requirement for the game in general as it moves forward, he suggests. Professionalism has been with rugby for 12 years and much has changed. Millar forecasts more difficulties down the road - they are inevitable, he says. "But with common sense I believe we can solve the problems.
"What pleases me most is the huge growth in the game globally. When I was playing, certainly in Europe, there was nothing like this interest. Players are now known to the guy in the street and the game is discussed like football. That interest is terrific. People watch and play the game all over the place and that pleases me, because it means the game is healthy, on the up and up."
Millar (of course strictly neutral as the head of the world's governing body) does admit he is proud and pleased to see the significant strides made by Irish rugby in the last two to three years. "Ireland will compete very well at both the Six Nations and the World Cup. Whether they will win things I don't know, but what is certain is that Eddie O'Sullivan has his head screwed on in the right way. He won't allow them to look further ahead than the next game.
"But I am excited by this Irish team. I played in some good Irish sides in the late 1950s and again in the late 1960s, but this current team are probably playing as well as any Irish team I have seen. And they will improve.
"O'Sullivan has taken them to another plane. Their offloading will get better and that is the key to the way you have got to play at the moment. Play at pace, keep the ball alive and don't slow the game down. Put pressure on opponents. The Irish team are capable of doing that.
"Getting our players back from England and also the emergence of the Heineken Cup, which gave the provinces the opportunity to play at a higher level, have been other key ingredients. But the difficulty will be to continue to develop players from a small base. We have to be very careful not to dismiss the clubs as irrelevant."
And what of the Springboks and their World Cup chances? Millar is optimistic. "The Springboks beat New Zealand in Rustenburg this year. The All Blacks are very good at the moment but these things are cyclical. I can remember when South Africa dominated world rugby in the early 1960s. Their forwards then, like now, were very physical. They always have been. What we saw back in November was a weakened team, not the real Springboks. We will see a much changed South Africa at the World Cup, with a great deal of pride. You can be sure they will be hard to beat."
Syd Millar went on holiday last week. Not because he necessarily needed to, but for one important reason. "Better get it done now. This is going to be a big year."
LIFE & TIMES: The Lion King of Ballymena
NAME: John Sydney Millar.
BORN: 23 May 1934, Ballymena, Northern Ireland.
POSITION: prop forward.
PLAYING CAREER: Ballymena, Ulster; 37 caps for Ireland; debut v France, 1958; nine caps for Lions, '59, '62, '68 tours.
MANAGERIAL CAREER: coach of "Invincibles" Lions tour to South Africa, '74; manager of Lions tour to SA, '80; manager of Ireland, inaugural World Cup, '87.
ADMINISTRATIVE CAREER: former company director; president, Irish Rugby Football Union; chairman, International Rugby Board.
HONOURS: Honorary Doctorate of Science, University of Ulster, '92; International Rugby Hall of Fame, '03; awarded freedom of Ballymena, '04; MBE; CBE, '05.Reuse content