Does Test Rugby need stricter rules?

Evidently Rhys Webb wants to have his Welsh cake and eat it. The Ospreys and Lions scrum-half signed for Toulon earlier this month, days before the Welsh Rugby Union announced a change to its policy governing players outside the country, entrapping the 28-year old.
The new rules outline that players moving to England or France from next season would only be considered by the Wales head coach if they had reached the 60-cap threshold. As Webb is on 28, he has no chance of reaching that by next September, even with all the extra internationals Wales are fond of arranging.
Webb’s response was to say that when he agreed to join Toulon – he cannot sign a contract with the French club until January, only a pre-agreement – he did not know the full implications regarding his international career. The Wales head coach, Warren Gatland, however, said he had warned him about the potential policy change.

Webb is a player Gatland will not want to be without from next season, one year away from the World Cup. He is Wales’s first-choice scrum-half by some distance and is at the peak of a career which has been affected by injuries. With the sport taking an increasing toll on players, Toulon’s offer was one he felt he could not risk turning down.
By moving to France, he was jeopardising his international career anyway. Under the old policy, from the 2019-20 season which takes in the World Cup, Gatland would only have been able to select two wildcards in his squad, that is players based outside the country who had turned down the offer of a contract with one of Wales’s four regions.
It was because Gatland faced being without a number of senior players that the Welsh Rugby Union and the regions came up with another formula. The regions argued for 70 caps but, under Gatland’s prompting, settled on 60, the number adopted by Australia before the last World Cup.
New Zealand and Argentina do not consider any player for international rugby who is not based in the country, Ireland tend not to look beyond their own border and England will only consider exiles under exceptional circumstances: when Chris Ashton left Saracens for Toulon in the summer he knew that he was putting his Test career in limbo at best.
If it is hard on Webb, as it would be on another Lion, Ross Moriarty, if he signed a new contract with Gloucester, Wales have to keep making a stand in an attempt to galvanise the regional game which, the Scarlets aside, remains in a depressed state. The alternative is to disband the regions, move back to club rugby in the form of a semi-professional Premiership and shoo their leading players to clubs in France and England.
It is not only a Welsh problem. The top leagues in France and England enjoy a substantial turnover, boosted by the largesse of owners, even if few of them make a profit. Their resources are such that they are able to attract leading players from the southern hemisphere in large numbers, and not just those looking for a pension at the end of their careers. Even New Zealand, where the lure of the national jersey is powerful, are losing players like Aaron Cruden, Malakai Fekitoa and Charles Piutau who have years left in them.
They may not have been first-choice All Blacks, but as the Lions found when touring South Africa in 2009 and Australia in 2013, when countries lose players who are second or third in line it weakens the foundations of their professional game. The response of a number of English clubs to injury problems in the last month has been to sign players from Australia, South Africa and the Pacific Islands.
It has consequences for international rugby, as has been seen in the Rugby Championship. In every major rugby country in the world, the primacy of international rugby is not disputed, save two: England and France where the professional club game is vibrant and owners like Toulon’s Mourad Boudjellal can afford to offer players contracts that set them up financially and soften the impact of a loss of Test status.

 

England are the world’s richest union but, along with France, it has the most mouths to feed. It has pursued a singular policy as it increases its revenues and continues to refurbish Twickenham, refusing to consider arguments from the southern hemisphere that there should be revenue-sharing among tier one nations to ensure that countries there and in Europe are better able to hold on to players and so pay more than lip service to the primacy of international rugby.
The RFU argues that the money it earns is poured back into the English game and that to give some up would hit the grassroots. But, and Bernard Laporte, the president of the French Rugby Federation has realised this, if Test rugby becomes weakened and less of an allure there is a threat to income anyway. And what is the investment in age-group rugby worth if players are lost to the system because club places are blocked by recruits who are not qualified to play for England?
There are too many ‘foreign’ players in France and the Premiership has, at least, reached saturation point. Rugby does not have the broad appeal of football and cannot afford the likes of South Africa and Australia becoming unexceptional. Or Wales again, which is why there have to be consequences for the likes of Webb.

 

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Could ending promotion solve rugby’s problems?

 

We could be witnessing the start of a perfect storm for English rugby:  too many clubs losing too much money, ever-increasing demands on players to the extent that strike action has been mentioned, and PRL’s latest whizz, the controversial suggestion that the domestic season should run from September through to the end of June.

 

PRL has said that the current limit of a maximum of 32 games during the course of a season will remain, but they’ve been light on details about how the new extended season will work. However, they have uttered the now virtually meaningless mantra that “player welfare is a priority”- no statement from any of the sport’s administrators can omit these words, but just saying them doesn’t make it happen.

 

But it would be entirely wrong to cast the clubs as some Victorian employer, flogging the players to breaking point, because they are businesses like any other, trying to become income sustainable. Well, some of them are, although the lack of action from the game’s authorities to curb reckless spending and ridiculous losses from a few bank-rolled clubs is nigh on obscene.

 

So perhaps we should get rid of promotion and relegation, and move to a 14-team Premiership. That will generate more revenue for the clubs, and with four extra week-ends, presumably even more revenue from the broadcasters. However, the only way that will work is if the additional cash is spent on adding more players to the clubs’ squads. Currently most clubs’ senior squads contain between 40-45 players, with the Academy numbers on top, and that needs to increase to between 50 and 55, enabling players to be better managed, with rest periods built in. PRL’s proposal for a ten-month club season, equating to 11 months for international players, seems to end the of pre-season as we know it. Yet, the medics believe that a proper pre-season is essential to assist recovery, and then to prepare for the demands of the coming season.

 

The Championship is the most obvious source of additional players, and that would solve another problem. The limit of most of the Championship sides’ ambition is to avoid relegation to National League 1. Barring Bristol and Yorkshire Carnegie, it is a league designed to entertain local fans.

 

The players, and their agents, have a role to play in this too. Billy Vunipola has said that he would consider a pay cut if he had to play fewer games. It’s time to test the waters: would other players take a pay cut if they were limited to the equivalent of say, 30 games a season? With 26 Premiership games, plus the play-offs, and between six and nine European ties, the season would have between 32 and 37 possible matches for “journeymen” players, with another possible dozen international matches for the elite. Hence the need for much bigger squad sizes.

 

The question is, would the clubs commit to managing their star players to stick within a lower limit of games, or the number of minutes played in a season, and would fans tolerate not seeing their clubs’ best players for as many as half of the league fixtures? It requires the most unlikely scenario imaginable, the clubs in the guise of PRL, the RFU, and the players, all working together to protect the future of the professional game. It’s in everyone’s interest to do this, because the financial state of some Premiership clubs is parlous.

 

The clubs need to remember that without their players there isn’t a league, or a future for their businesses, and the players need to understand that if a few clubs went to the wall, the whole house of cards would fall, with a devastating effect on their salaries. Mutual self-interest needs to come to the fore and the long term will have to be prioritised ahead of short term interest.

 

 

 

Rugby union is moving towards Football – it’s very sad…No it’s not,It’s reality

On the weekend when the Aviva Premiership season kicked off there was this headline in The Telegraph: “We’re moving towards football, slowly but surely – it’s very sad”
While the article started off by congratulating the sport on the increased number of spectators it was attracting, it’s increased television audiences, how sponsors were falling over themselves to get a piece of the Premiership, and just how brilliant the product is, then came the rub….the increasing disquiet from “leading figures” at the effect that this new money is having. In an age of increased commercialism and professionalism can rugby’s “traditional values” survive? In other words, is rugby becoming more like football?
Rugby’s “values” are often cited as a stick with which to beat football. Bath coach Todd Blackadder (insert own pun here) has said that “Respect is a cornerstone of what rugby is all about. Sportmanship, which you see after every game, and during the game.” Now long may that continue, and I for one wish many footballers of the round-ball variety would behave in such a way. But I’ve watched enough rugby to see that petty ways of disrespecting the opposition, stimulation and the like have been creeping in for a while.
An inevitable consequence of more money is greater expectation and pressure to deliver results from everybody. Over the past 18 months, eight of the 13 Premiership clubs have changed their coaching set-ups. The rugby transfer market is also evolving. The £1million transfer fee Montpellier paid Northampton for their player-of-the-year Louis Picamoles ( when he was only a year into a three-year contract and on one of the highest salaries in English rugby) , and the reported £1 million salary Bristol ( a Championship club remember) are offering Charles Piutau will set a benchmark others will no doubt be tempted to follow.
I would argue that emulating football’s Premier League is not such a bad thing. Since its inception a quarter of a century ago (and only three years before rugby stumbled into professionalism) it has become arguably Britain’s greatest cultural beacon/sporting soap opera, broadcast in 212 territories worldwide. Clearly, the Premiership and Premier League operate in different financial spheres and operate different strategies in terms of scale, but if I had a message to rugby it would be to by all means try and hold on to your treasured values, but don’t ignore the inevitable consequences of money.
Someone once wrote that professionalism was like being pregnant; either you were or you weren’t. There is no half-way house. So grasp that reality rugby, and stop blaming football for getting you pregnant.

Mike Miles

Rugby needs to learn the right lessons from Football

Colin Boag is a regular columnist in The Rugby Paper, and I usually find him worth reading. However, he is one of those rugby writers who like to blame all rugby’s ills on football. He was at it again in a recent column. He was writing about players’ attempts to get others booked, and predictably enough, he saw it as “just another example of rugby starting to ape football.”

Ben Kay is a rugby analyst I would rank alongside Gary Neville on the round-ball game. But a recent column in The Times, was headed “It’s crucial rugby wins the battle that football has lost.”  The battle he was referring to was simulation, and came shortly after Alexis Sanchez was hit on the shoulder by a ball and then made a delayed, exaggerated dive in a bid to con the referee.

Kay claims to love football as much as rugby , and his column was intended, not to knock football, a la Boag, but to point at rugby’s need to stamp out a situation whereby it becomes an accepted tactic for players to try and gain an advantage in getting opponents punished by feigning injury.

“We have had some incidents of simulation in rugby and we cannot allow a situation to develop, as has already happened in football, whereby it becomes an accepted tactic for players to try to gain an advantage or see opponents punished by feigning injury.”

“There have been a few examples over the past few years and we cannot accept that attitude as part of the game. This is not rugby being pious. I wish football had been strict in dealing with this because it is an ugly scar on the so-called beautiful game. Diving and theatrics are the biggest problem in football and the sport should long ago have brought in citing commissioners, who would have the power to study footage and bring charges after the game. That is what rugby did when it had a problem with excessive violence.”

Kay then wanders off further into rugby’s moral maze. “Rugby is not a puritanical sport. Players spend all game trying to push the boundaries of the law. If a player deliberately and cynically breaks one of the laws, he does so knowing that he is taking a risk and could be sanctioned. That is very different from a player trying to get an opponent sent to the sin-bin or dismissed altogether when he has not broken any laws at all. Rugby has to clamp down on it.”

There are certainly other issues exercising the minds of rugby officials at the moment, including players appealing for penalties, arguing for opponents to receive yellow cards and back chat. Kay is less concerned about most of these issues. For him it is perfectly natural for players to appeal for things when they see them in the heat of battle.

However, when players feign injury they are showing a lack of respect for their opponent and for their game. “We do not want players gesturing for yellow cards but there is nothing wrong with a captain asking for clarification on a decision that he feels is too lenient. There is a fine line between back chat and the importance of keeping open lines of communication between referees and players. That needs to be monitored because respect is critical. When players feign injury they are showing a lack of respect for their opponent and for their game.”

Then just like London buses, Stephen Jones, “Rugby’s most outspoken and influential journalist”, wrote an article in the June issue of Rugby World headlined “Is rugby now becoming football?” I feared the worse. But lo and behold, Jones admitted that rugby has long looked down its nose at football but it has to stop being sniffy, and he even admitted he prefers many aspects of the round-ball game. He even appears to be a Spurs fan!

He cites a number of areas where rugby is aligning itself with football. A hire and fire scenario with coaches. The attitude towards referees, specifically the constant appealing by players against decisions against them. Oh, and yes, brandishing an imaginary card to get a player booked. He reckons that in the last calendar year he has heard at least 20 players asking the referee to consider carding an opponent.

He does claim that in rugby there isn’t diving…….

In the 2014 European Cup final, Bryan Habana was reprimanded by Alain Rolland, the referee, for exaggerating a small off-the-ball collision with Owen Farrell.

At the 2015 World Cup, Stuart Hogg was rebuked by Nigel Owens for diving in Scotland’s game against South Africa at St James’ Park. “If you want to dive like that again, come back here in two weeks and play [when Newcastle United are at home],” the referee said at the time. And how we all laughed…..

World Rugby, a body which only calls the fire brigade when the house is already burnt down , issued a law amendment in 2015 that gives referees the power to issue a yellow card if they witness a player diving.

Surely this is the demolition of the last justification for rugby’s moral superiority. As Jones admits, the sport is now on the way to being just another sport.

I just wish other rugby scribes would admit it…

Premiership Rugby ambition must be challenged by RFU.

The Champions Cup final this weekend will lack a team from the Pro 12 for the fifth consecutive season following the Munster and Leinster semi-final defeats.

The tournament has become an Anglo-French production, although in those five years only four clubs have made it to the final: Toulon, Saracens, Clermont Auvergne and, last year, Racing 92, whose fall this season was emphasised by their recent 50-point defeat at Montpellier.

Gaps are all around. Saracens, pursued by Exeter, are well ahead of the rest in England where Wasps lead the table but will not emulate their achievements of the previous decade until they become harder to break down: they recorded bonus-point victories against the bottom two clubs in the league, Worcester and Bristol, in recent weeks but conceded seven.

Leinster and Munster are, following Ulster’s fickle season, the major forces in the Pro 12 and, while La Rochelle lead the Top 14 by a considerable distance, their failure to defeat Gloucester at home in their Challenge Cup semi-final suggested they will have it all to do win the play-offs where the more pragmatic Clermont, Montpellier and Toulon will be lurking.

There is a danger that some teams will outgrow the leagues they play in, which is one reason why Premiership Rugby, seeking to justify its intention to increase the length of the domestic season to 10 months from 2019-20, is looking to establish a tournament with the leading franchises in the southern hemisphere, which currently would mean four New Zealand sides.

With South Africa about to ditch two teams from Super Rugby next year, most likely the Cheetahs and the Kings, the prospect of their joining the Pro 12 has been raised. The organisers of the tournament are looking at ways to expand commercially to raise income for its sides, trying to keep up with the Premiership and the Pro 12, and even the United States has been explored.

As more money comes into the game, more is sought with most of the increase being absorbed in wages. Finance is the overriding reason why the Premiership wants to expand its season and, for all the assurances given to players about rest periods and a break at the midway point of a season, what about supporter fatigue and the extra costs fans face?

On the other hand Saracens can go no higher than they are in the current set-up. It is when the expansion of the club game cuts across Test rugby, the earner for the vast majority of tier one nations that the problems begin. That is not a concern for Premiership Rugby, which is why its ambitions should be challenged by the body that controls the game in England, the Rugby Football Union.

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

Championship to Premiership – Mind the Gap

Just to clarify at the outset, I am talking about rugby union’s particular problems with the gap between the Premiership and the Championship, though I am aware of the parallels with the round-ball game.

The other Saturday I passed a very pleasant afternoon watching London Scottish end their Championship season with a dismal defeat against Nottingham. I shared the experience with about 800 other souls, which represents a decent crowd for the Exiles.

But just what do people mean when they talk about the gap between the Championship and Premiership? I’d like to talk some about some of the less obvious issues that aren’t often talked about.

I’m a strong believer that to be successful on the pitch the club has to have its ducks in a row off the pitch first. So while most commentators will talk about the gap in player salary budget and lack of time to sign players as being handicaps for the championship sides I think it starts much earlier than that.

Sides in the championship don’t have the same budget and that does impact on the size and quality of the administration team. That cuts across marketing, accounting, etc…Even sides like Worcester Warriors and Exeter Chiefs, who are held up as shining examples of how to get into and survive in the Premiership, have had issues. Worcester had a LV= point deduction  for an administrative error around player registration in 2012, and Exeter had 2 Aviva Premiership points deducted for a player entering England on his Australian not Fiji passport.

However signs that London Welsh weren’t prepared were much larger with their team manager Mike Scott banned for life from rugby for falsifying player registrations.Welsh were also fined and lost 5 points.

The Rugby Players Association covers all Premiership players. One of the things they do is set minimum standards around player contracts and mediates between players and clubs when issues arise. Nothing like this is set up for Championship clubs, and it is evident not all the clubs would want it to happen.

Players in the championship can be on very short-term rolling contracts. This means they can be an injury or concussion away from losing their jobs and ability to pay the mortgage/feed the family. Whilst Premiership players might be on a year-long contract they don’t have to worry about where their money is coming from week to week.

Championship clubs can lack the experienced administrators to follow the rules correctly and have players on very insecure contracts. Where there are these kind of uncertainties off the pitch, the coaches and players don’t have the base to fully concentrate on delivering on the pitch.

The Clash..of two teams. chasing former glories

Bath Rugby v Leicester Tigers

April 8 2017

@ Twickenham Stadium

 

Bath: 27

Leicester:21

There was a time when Bath and Leicester Tigers would meet at Twickenham because they were the best teams in the country playing in an end-of-season shoot-out. On Saturday they were there for a regular-season fixture because Bath have a marketing department who have worked all hours and conjured a crowd numbering 61,816 in the warm spring sunshine. The game was officially billed as “The Clash”; less catchy, but they could have gone with “Two Faded Champions In Search Of Former Glory”.

The struggles of two of England’s greatest clubs have been curious and compelling to observe these past few years as they have attempted to snatch at the dominance that once seemed theirs by right. The league table tells some of the story: Leicester were fourth and Bath were fifth at start of play. They were wrestling each other for a place in the play-offs. At the end of this exciting but error-strewn contest Leicester are fourth and Bath fifth, albeit separated only on points difference. They are within reach of the top and yet also miles away.

In their greater times, they were models of success management. They knew the formula and they stuck with it. Now they are shuffling the cards, hoping that some day they will turn up an ace. Matt O’Connor arrived for his first day pitchside as Leicester’s head coach.-the third this season. Bath’s policy for their coaches, meanwhile, seems to have been that of the revolving door.

If there is any continuity here, it is Matt Banahan. He is Bath’s longest serving player: he joined in 2006 and has lost count of how many coaches have been and gone in that time.

Here he is trying to do the maths. “Maybe ten, maybe 13 different coaches,” he said. He then goes through them, one by one. He settles on 11. Then he remembers who he forgot: 12.

“Every coach picks up a squad, everyone gets excited and you get a few good games,” he said. “It’s just about maintaining it. We’ve got the squad to do great things; we just need to find that plateau to perform at a high level.”

Banahan is not intending to be critical. Not remotely. However, he could hardly make the point better. Bath rise and fall, their fortunes fluctuate; there is no plateau. What would happen if you stuck with one management team instead?

He will not say this, but I can: either Bruce Craig, the Bath owner, is too consistently poor at selecting his coaching teams; or he should stick by them and allow them to soak up the disappointments and turn them into successes.

Craig is not alone though. Shotgun management has become the order of the Premiership this season. (Sound familiar?)Your team hit hard times, you look around for answers, you sack one of the coaches. Leicester have done it three times this season. Rugby clubs used to pause and then react at the end of the season; this time, though, mid-season, five of the 12 Premiership clubs have made changes to their coaching structure.

And what of the clubs doing well? Well, there are only three of them and they tell the same story from the opposite perspective. At Saracens, who at present are, by some distance, England’s most successful club, Mark McCall has been director of rugby for six years. Top of the Aviva Premiership table? Wasps — where Dai Young has also been in place for six years. Second in the table are Exeter Chiefs; Rob Baxter, the head coach, was at the club before some of his players were born.

Does this not suggest that continuity wins? Banahan’s answer is straight to the point: “You’d obviously like that. But rugby, football, cricket — it’s a business, you are judged on results and that is how people keep their jobs and lose them.”

Bath have not had continuity. Not a glimmer of it. Yes, they started the season well, but the fixture list was kind to them and allowed them to build a head of steam against some of the weaker teams. Of late, though, they have run out of puff. They have lost their past three Premiership games, were humiliated 53-10 by Saracens, failed to score a try at home to Wasps and somehow conjured a defeat against Bristol.

The game’s other subplot revolved around the two fly halves, George Ford, of Bath, and Freddie Burns, of Leicester, who will swap clubs in the summer and will likely have something to prove to both sides.

Well into the final quarter it seemed that the aspirations of Bath had been roasted in the Twickenham sunshine, burnt to a frazzle and sent back to the kitchen. With 67 minutes gone Leicester led 21-13. , and then, finally, West Country hell was let loose.Taulupe Faletau went on a weaving run  and Anthony Watson cruised up outside with a trademark supporting run. The kick made it 21-20, and two minutes later, Faletau made big inroads again, the ball arrived in the hands of Watson via Banahan and it was 27-21 with the kick. Leicester were by now paying the penalty for their failure to cash in on their authority. Fly-half Freddie Burns commented:”Great occasion, disappointing result.”

Hid personal duel with Ford probably ended even. Both had their kicking boots on, and Leicester fell behind only after Burns had left the field injured.

Twickenham was magnificent on Saturday afternoon. There was a new crowd there, new fans; that is what Bath want to achieve and good luck to them. And they happened upon an almighty contest, full of history, over brimming with significance.

Mike Miles