For once, Football seems intent on imitating Rugby

Saracens have just regained their European crown at the expense of holders Leinster. Anyone watching the game could not have failed to notice, be it on the corner flags or the obligatory bottles of “champagne” the Saracens players were spraying over each other after their victory, that Heineken were the sponsors.
The competition is now officially known as the Heineken European Champions Cup.

Started when the sport went professional in 1995, the tournament soon became known as the Heineken Cup (except in France where a peculiar ban on alcohol advertising caused it to be labelled the H. Cup) and remained so until 2014 when the competition became the European Champions Clubs Cup.
This was after two years of acrimonious wrangling between the English and French clubs on the one hand, and the Celtic unions on the other. It was the Anglo-French clubs who wanted to do things differently. One of their arguments for doing so was that the competition, though successful, was not being exploited enough commercially by the current organisers, who were an off-shoot of the body that ran the Six-Nations and effectively controlled by the national unions, not the clubs.

Eventually the clubs won the battle, the competition was re-organised (the number of participants was reduced from 24 to 20) and a new world of sponsorship was promised. Heineken would still be on board but only one of five major blue-chip sponsors. Now five years on that promised land has somehow not been reached and in a marvellous piece of déjà vu Heineken are back, alone, in the sponsors driving seat.

So, what’s that got to do with football? More specifically, with the European Champions League. Back in 2012 one of the English rugby clubs’ major beefs was that because the competition had 24 clubs, current qualifying rules allowed too many minnow competitors, particularly from Italy. Now in a week which has seen four English clubs get to football’s European club finals after momentous second leg come backs in Liverpool and Amsterdam, comes news that the so-called elite clubs in mainland Europe see what is happening and fear for their futures.
La Liga, Serie A, and the Bundesliga together with Ligue 1, cannot generate anything like the Premier League’s TV revenue, and their elite clubs desperately need to significantly increase their income from the Champions League.
Changes due to come into effect in 2014 will mean a Champions League with four groups of eight teams, with guaranteed places for 24 elite clubs, disruption to domestic leagues and fewer opportunities for clubs outside that self-selecting elite.
Central to the new format is the desire of guaranteed new revenues from television and sponsorship for the traditional powerhouses in the major leagues.
Similar noises were being made by rugby union’s revolutionaries back in 2012-14. And look where that has got them….

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Champions Cup looking at Rejig

Next month in Newcastle they are promising to host the best weekend that club rugby union has ever known. A convivial city, an iconic stadium, two ding-dong finals and a vibrant late-night social scene: anyone heading to Tyneside is in for a treat. Assuming the weather plays along, it will make Twickenham feel like Madame Tussauds.
It might come as a surprise to many, therefore, that the future of Europe’s elite club competition is not yet entirely guaranteed beyond 2022. The entire road map of domestic and international rugby is in the process of being reassessed and no one currently knows where the Champions Cup and its smaller cousin, the Challenge Cup, will fit in.
It has emerged the private equity firm, CVC Capital Partners, are looking for a stake in the Pro14, having already invested in the Premiership. There has been talk of aligning the two leagues by instigating a winners-take-all play-off between the respective winners. If those sides were, say, Leinster and Saracens, what would be Europe’s point of difference?
The international game remains on another level, a fact underlined by the meagre attendance at the Ricoh Arena for Saturday’s supposed showpiece between Saracens and Munster. The half-empty stadium may have been an unfortunate consequence of Easter, rail disruption and assorted other factors but it has prompted concern even among true European believers. Have we reached the point where, outside the big Irish provinces and Clermont Auvergne, there are not enough travelling fans to justify neutral stadia for future semi-finals?
In short, it is crunch time for Europe. How many Premiership clubs, for example, regarded it as their absolute priority this season? Saracens and Exeter both did but not many others. Survival on the domestic front has been the primary objective for most. Wales, meanwhile, have had just one semi-finalist in the past decade; Italy were not even represented this year.
Small wonder discussions behind the scenes have been intensifying. On top of everything else there is also player welfare pressure. The top players will inevitably play fewer games per season in the future. That means something has to give – but probably not the Top 14 or the newly flush Premiership. Nor will it be the Six Nations, still the northern hemisphere’s biggest selling point and its main economic driver.
Some insist CVC’s arrival is great news: the more competitions touched by their investment, the more chance there is of an integrated global fixture calendar. They also relish the extra money and insist CVC’s influence will only really be felt in commercial areas. Maybe, but if so, why is Mark McCafferty looking to retain his seat on English rugby’s powerful Professional Game Board after he steps aside as Premiership Rugby’s chief executive this summer to join CVC as a consultant? Anyone who imagines rugby will meander along as before without a great deal changing does not fully understand how private equity firms operate.
All of which means that Simon Halliday, chairman of European Professional Club Rugby, is an increasingly busy man. Talking to Leinster and Toulouse officials at their semi-final, he was reassured to find there is still a lot of love for Europe’s existing major club tournament. He said: “You’re not going to throw that away, are you? What would replace it? It’s in the DNA of a lot of these clubs and I don’t think they’ll want to see it devalued.”
Still, Halliday accepts some tweaks could be necessary, not least to current semi-final arrangements: “Having taken a lot of feedback in the last 48 hours, I think we do need to change something.” This could involve abandoning neutral venues or copying the Top 14 model and staging both semis in the same place, though the latter idea carries an obvious risk. “If we stick them in, say, the Aviva and no Irish team gets there, what happens?” Halliday asked.
Around various other committee room tables, meanwhile, all kinds of opinions are being floated. Some argue Premiership Rugby should trim its play-offs to free up a weekend or two. Nor does everyone think the idea of a season-ending Pro 14 v Premiership play-off is a brilliant idea. “Who would give a shit?” one senior administrator told the Guardian. “Everyone will have had enough by then. If they end up playing a meaningless fixture simply to suit a TV audience, isn’t that a case of the tail wagging the dog?”
Even the most epic of Newcastle weekends, therefore, cannot entirely guarantee the future of European club rugby beyond 2022. EPCR, for its part, can only hope the party mood sways a few influential hearts and minds. “There are debates going on from World Rugby downwards and we have been very clear we expect to be consulted,” Halliday said. “It’s in everyone’s interests. We’re not a separate organisation, we’re made up of the clubs, leagues and unions. No one can look at their own competition in a bubble anymore.”
For all those who believe Europe is worth fighting for, these are crucial days.

It’s all about the Money

It’s all about the Money
It is the last bastion of rugby’s good old days in many, many ways. And now it seems that it may be snapped up by the highest bidder to those with the deepest pockets, wrenched away from us mere mortals who have no interest in furnishing ourselves with an unsightly satellite dish and an extra gazillion reality TV show repeats.
The Six Nations place on free-to-air TV is under heavy threat from the ‘equity companies’ sniffing around the tournament as a source of revenue. The unions appear ready to sell the air time for a hatful of millions, millions which presumably will go into… something… we’re not really sure, but we are sure there won’t be as much of a trickle-down effect as they make out.
What we are sure of is that rugby will suffer. Even the organisation which would potentially hold the rights to World Rugby’s Nations League, Swiss company Infront, has warned against the dangers of putting a tournament on pay TV, with VP Dr. Christian Müller saying directly: “…if you put a sport or event exclusively on pay TV, you will kill it.”
Given the amounts of money being bandied about, it is little wonder the unions’ heads have been turned despite this warning, although it has also unleashed the usual squabbles between the English and French and the rest, with the former two insisting they should have a bigger share. Hopefully they’ll fall out so much that nothing will happen.
But Saturdays on the Beeb – or ITV – with the usual pundits will be gone. In their place would be glib promos, faddish concepts, glossy, money-spinning (for non-rugby people) ads and dollars aplenty for the industry. And for the rest of us, a sad vacuum where the Six Nations used to be in February.
Rugby is not soccer. There are not enough people willing to part with a ton of money for the sake of five weekends in spring. And that means there will not be enough children of those people able to stare at the screen in wonder at Cardiff’s full house or benefit from the direct analysis of Brian Moore. Rugby is big, but there’s a limit. It needs its free-to-air outlet. Take it away, and you take away the connection to the next generation too, never mind the current one. And there’s not enough of either to just arrogantly brave the losses.
The final weekend of the Six Nations drew 9m viewers, an extraordinary number for a sport that is more mainstream than many but is still a tiny niche to soccer’s behemoth. Take away its one credible mass media visual outlet and it will simply fade from view – as happened to cricket and Formula One. The RFU reckons England’s November internationals drew a cool million viewers (remember they were playing the All Blacks). That’s eight million fewer than Wales v England this year: how many of those extra who heard the singing and saw the spills in Cardiff were sporty kids who now have a tangible dream?
Cricket especially has suffered since it went to Sky in 2004. Formula One was acquired by CVC (one of the companies sniffing round the Six Nations by the way) and also went to Sky. It made CVC a bomb from advertising revenues and such, but as a sport and viewing pastime it was left by the wayside, with one of the teams describing it as having been ‘raped’ by CVC. Cricket’s finances swelled initially after its move to Sky, but then deflated, while participation, engagement and consciousness of the game all dropped. Ten years after cricket’s paywall defection, a peak Ashes audience of over 8m had dropped to barely 500,000.
Infront’s contribution is by some distance the most sensible: strike a balance. Take the paywall money for some of the games but leave the top bills to the wider audience. It’s all very well swelling the coffers of a union, but if nobody sees the game, nobody will want to play it. And where would the unions get their money from then?

England Team 2…..English Clubs 1

At the time of writing every rugby writer (well at least those in the English papers)
is obsessed with the success to date of the English side in the Six Nations, with two
thumping wins out of two, and a contest in Cardiff on the horizon.

But a few short weeks ago the pool stages of the European Champions Cup were
concluded, and they have only darkened the cloud that hangs over English club
rugby.

As was the case last year, Saracens are the sole Premiership representatives in the
knockout phase of Europe’s elite competition, where they are joined by a hat-trick
of Irish provinces, and two each from France and Scotland. What underlies this
English club failure on the international battleground?
Some have suggested that there is a bruising competitiveness in the Premiership that leaves players fatigued once Europe rolls round. Supporting evidence can be found in the fact that France’s notoriously abrasive Top 14 has produced only a marginally better result with only Toulouse and Racing 92 qualifying for the quarter-finals.
However, this does a huge disservice to the Pro14. Apart from table-toppers Leinster and the stragglers of Dragons, Zebre, and Southern Kings, the league is compact and hotly-contested. Moreover, recent years have seen many Celtic stars return from stints abroad; Johnny Sexton, Dan Lydiate, and Ross Moriarty are but a few of numerous travellers who have made their way home of late. The class that such names add invariably increases the demands of the league.
The threat of relegation is another explanation that has been proposed for the deficiency of Premiership clubs in Europe. This certainly impacted Newcastle Falcons’ performance, as they slipped away after making a stirring start in Pool 5. Their focus was understandably placed on their perilous position at the foot of the league table. For the rest, though, the same cannot be said. Exeter Chiefs, Gloucester, and Wasps all stand well-clear of the trapdoor, whilst Bath and Leicester Tigers have sufficient quality to keep their heads above water.
What reasons are left for this collective collapse? I believe the density of international players within some Pro14 squads sheds light on the issue. Cast your eye over the Six Nations squads and it becomes clear that Scotland and Ireland players predominantly come from a handful of sides. Comparatively, England’s are lightly-distributed across numerous clubs. Twenty-seven of those selected by Joe Schmidt are contracted to Munster or Leinster, with his counterpart Gregor Townsend assembling thirty Scotsmen currently plying their trade at Edinburgh or Glasgow Warriors.
This clearly demonstrates that all four are teeming with talent. Nevertheless, so are most Premiership and Top 14 sides, given their greater financial capabilities. However, the Scots and Irish will be accustomed to playing with each under the increased demand of international rugby. With the demands of European competition above those of domestic action, familiarity at superior levels is significant.
A couple of anomalies may be spotted here. Firstly, Ulster progress whilst providing only six of Ireland’s players this time around. Yet, this ignores other factors at play, such as the ominous power of Ravenhill, as well as countless other intangibles. This point about the role of lesser factors also solves the second anomaly, which is that the Scarlets flopped despite possessing twelve of the Welsh squad members.
My argument regarding the effect of familiarity at the highest-levels is therefore a general one. Exceptions to the rule – like Scarlets and Ulster – are always likely.

Will Rugby Union trash its finest qualities in 2019?

If ever there was a year for rugby union to show the best side of itself, it is 2019. A first Rugby World Cup to be staged in Asia, fresh financial investment offering club rugby a chance to take a significant next step, a Six Nations championship requiring only a sprinkle of on-field brilliance to rank among the most compelling tournaments in recent memory.
So why the slight sense of unease? Partly it is because rugby has a long, undistinguished history of failing to grasp such major opportunities. It is only in 2015, for example, that English rugby was toasting the massive long-term benefits that hosting the biggest World Cup in history would inevitably bring. Barely three years later the talk is of damaging cuts to the community game, clubs struggling to put out as many adult teams as they used to and the Rugby Football Union’s latest winter of internal political discontent.
Mix in the potential complications of Brexit, increasing disquiet over the game’s ever-growing physicality and the ongoing wrangling over the new global international calendar and there is a rising cacophony of noises off. None of this, though, is as damaging as the bleakest scenario of the lot: the prospect of rugby losing any semblance of a reputation for respect, honour and integrity with participants, to borrow from Oscar Wilde, knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing.
Recent events have been far from encouraging in this fundamental area. Recently, one of the supposed showpiece games of the English season was marred by accusations of a player spitting at an opponent, while a director of rugby had an unseemly press-room altercation with a journalist and a leading player publicly lambasted a fellow pro for potentially endangering his career. Before Christmas the England captain and an international teammate were pinged for backchat by a referee sick and tired of constantly being advised how to do his job.
Eye-gouging, biting, simulation, bullying allegations, nightclub misconduct … any pretensions to the moral high ground to which rugby used to cling have long since been eroded. This matters for one fundamental reason: if rugby ceases to be regarded, even by those who love it, as a character-building, mood-enhancing and cherishable team sport for all, it becomes even harder to justify the lengthy queues of battered players in A & E.
This is not to say rugby has surrendered its soul, merely that all involved need to be aware of the slippery slope they are on. Hard but fair should be rugby’s watchword, not “I think you’ll find the video evidence is inconclusive”. When players appeal to the referee, as they so often do, for penalties at breakdowns when the supposed offender is being deliberately pinned down by their own teammates, they should understand they do their sport a small but significant disservice. Ditto the mock outrage when a scrum goes down or, worse, arm-waving appeals are made to the assistant referee. Playing to the absolute limits of the laws is absolutely fine; deliberately going to ground after contact with the clear aim of getting an opponent carded is not.
Some will argue such cynicism does not matter in the great scheme of things, that what happens out on the pitch is heat-of-the-moment stuff and no one else’s business. This ignores the snowball effect on behaviour at lower levels as well as the rising levels of frustration it generates, from directors of rugby downwards. Whether at games or on social media, there is no question that rugby fans as a species are growing more one-eyed, less tolerant and generally more easily enraged. This would also appear true of society as a whole but rugby, a game fundamentally predicated on respect for its officials and participants, is cheapened more than most by finger-pointing and unnecessary posturing.
Sometimes rugby forgets to celebrate its greatest strength, namely its power to unite the unlikeliest of people on and off the field. Dilute that special quality, lose the humour that remains the game’s safety net and fail to nourish the sport’s image and 2019 will be remembered as the year that rugby union, at a critical moment in its history, threw it all away.

Rugby Union in limbo over Brexit as well

The dog’s Brexit the government is making of leaving the European Union has put the organizers of the Premiership, Pro14 and the European Champions Cup in a state of nervous uncertainty with the prospect of no deal in place by the 29 March departure date growing.
That falls on the quarter-final weekend in the Champions and Challenge cups and exiting without a deal would have an immediate impact on clubs and supporters, not least because a visa would be needed to enter a member of the European Union.
It would leave a divide among Ireland’s four provinces with Leinster, Munster and Connacht governed by European law and Ulster by British statute. That could impact on recruitment with players from South Africa, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, who are currently classified as European because their countries have trade agreements with the EU, maintaining their status in the Republic of Ireland but not in Northern Ireland where they would fall under the foreign player rule.
“I have not experienced anything like this in my time as an administrator,” said David Jordan, the Pro14 tournament director. “We are a cross-border tournament and since we took on two teams from South Africa who are used to having different rules, they are permitted two non-South African players in their matchday squads while the other 12 teams are allowed two non-Europeans, for example.
“We are having to formulate plans for different scenarios and the uncertainty makes it difficult. If a deal is agreed, we would have a transition period and would be able to plan properly, but if 29 March comes without an agreement, we would have five teams bound by European law and seven in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland that are not.
“I do not think anything would change for the final two months of the season because the Kolpak players all have visas and would not suddenly have to leave but it would have an impact on recruitment for next season. The stipulation over non-European players would have to be rewritten for seven teams. We are taking legal advice and we are speaking to the unions involved. While we have to prepare for no deal, we hope one is reached.”
A European player is defined as one who is a citizen of an EU member country. It would mean after Brexit that Welsh, Scottish, English and Northern Irish players who played in one of the other countries would technically be classified as a foreigner. It would have to be changed to British.
What makes it all the more unnerving for rugby administrators is that it is not simply a case of the EU and British government posturing while believing that a deal will be agreed, even if talks go close to the leaving date. It has to be ratified by parliament, which is so hopelessly divided that it agrees only on disagreeing.
It is not only unions, tournament organizers, clubs and players who are in limbo but supporters. No deal would mean that anyone travelling to Europe from Britain would be treated the same as someone from the United States or Australia. From 2021 UK citizens will have to pay €7 for a three-year tracker document but if there is no transition period after Brexit, it will kick in on 30 March, the European commission has said.
“We will have to take it in our stride,” said Jordan. “We have the advantage of being a cross-border tournament, dealing with different legislation and facing logistical challenges, but with this it is a case of getting your head around what might happen. We do not know what the final outcome will be.”
The Rugby Football Union (RFU) has been in talks with the department of culture, media and sport about the implications of Brexit, including what would happen if there was not a deal. Who can work in the UK is a matter for the government, and sporting bodies have to comply, but player registration rules are determined by unions.
The RFU has said there will be no change this season, even if parliament does not agree a deal with the EU. What happens beyond that is a matter for discussion, such as whether players who have qualified as “Europeans” will maintain that status or whether they will need a work permit.
A question for unions post-Brexit is whether to tighten up the rules on registration to increase the number of homegrown players in squads. It would affect England more than Wales and Scotland, and the financial incentives for Premiership clubs to include England-qualified players in their matchday squads has worked to a large degree.
A club such as Gloucester that has recently signed a number of South African players could find they have to exclude all except two of them every weekend. Bristol, Newcastle and Northampton would be in the same position, but Premiership Rugby would doubtless make representations to the RFU. Clubs feel they have the balance right between homegrown players and imports but with the salary cap being frozen for the next two seasons, wage increases will have to be balanced by either a reduction in squad sizes or the promotion of more academy products.
There is an argument that leaving the EU could be an opportunity for rugby but shrouded in confusion, it is threatening to be a curse.

Rugby’s Summer becomes the new Winter

Theresa May would have felt right at home at Twickenham. Even a workable Brexit deal sometimes feels more achievable than locating the solution to rugby union’s unfeasibly tight fixture calendar. For a quarter of a century, if not longer, the sport has been trying to squeeze a globally-accepted quart into a disputed pint pot and the eureka moment has yet to materialise.
We still live in an age where the faintest of tweaks, largely irrelevant in the wider scheme of things, are hailed as triumphant advances. No English player, for example, will be permitted in future to be involved in more than 35 matches per year or start more than 30 games a season, down from 32. Hold those exultant trumpets: in the southern hemisphere and Ireland many top players already play a third fewer games. The off-season? Blink and you’ll miss it from a fan’s perspective. Summer is about to become the new winter, with the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 2021 concluding on the first weekend in August. The following domestic season is due to start on 12 September. Admittedly, the English players on the Lions tour will have a mandatory 10 weeks off but, even so, a dubious new first awaits. For the first time competitive pro games involving English players or teams will take place in every single month of the calendar year.
There will now be only two Augusts in the next five summers – 2020 and 2022 – when there will be no meaningful rugby played. The official disclaimer is that no individual will be playing rugby for 11 months of the year. But the inescapable truth is that the calendar is expanding at precisely the moment all sides accept that playing the sport has never been more physically demanding. Stick that slogan on the side of a bus.
No one yet knows how ruinous the recurring failure to embrace a less is more approach will ultimately prove. There are already some unhealthy side-effects. Take the Lions, the most universally loved and commercially vibrant team in the game. Their next tour is already being compromised like never before: it will last five weeks and incorporate eight games.
For the moment the players – aka the meat in the sandwich – appear to have mostly been placated and strike action is not on the horizon. Given the increasing uncertainty surrounding the professional game’s finances, at home and abroad, many have clearly concluded they have little choice but to suck it up, trusting those in authority to crack down hard on clubs who fail to grant their players the enforced rest – a five-week summer break plus the odd fallow week during the season – to which they are now entitled. If there is a silver lining to the new-age schedule it is that enlightened player management and mental wellbeing support will have to be taken ever more seriously.
In the meantime, take a step back and ask yourself three questions. Does an 11-month season feel like progress? Does summer rugby union in England – rubbing shoulders in June with football World Cups, Test cricket, Royal Ascot, Wimbledon and rugby league – float your pedalo? And will these announcements be hailed in 10 years’ time as the moment professional rugby union saw the light? Only incurable optimists and gluttons for punishment will be answering yes to all three.