Watch Out – The Americans are coming!

 

A few weeks ago, Twickenham opened its doors to American Football by hosting the NFL “international series” game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Cleveland Browns. It was the fourth NFL game played in London this autumn, with the matches split between the home of English Rugby Union and Wembley. The RFU was no doubt paid a king’s ransom by the NFL for rolling out the red carpet to the American sporting invasion – and let’s hope that it is doing so with its eyes wide open.

 

This so-called international series is part of an NFL strategy to export its code to Europe, not least because the audience figures for the sport in the USA have been declining, and capturing a lucrative new market in Europe is a useful hedge against the dip in popularity on the other side of the Atlantic. The Americans need no lessons in sports marketing from anyone, mainly because they invented it, with major professional sports like American Football in the vanguard. What bodies like the RFU have to recognise, and quickly, is that this colonisation, far from being a friendly partnership, is a serious threat to the health of Rugby Union.

 

The reality is that if an NFL franchise is created in London, or relocates to it, that talented young Rugby Union players – as well as those in rugby league, athletics, and to a lesser extent football – will be at the top of their shopping list. The athletic and physical types required by Rugby Union and American Football are virtually the same, and therefore they will be fishing in the same talent pool. The NFL knows that money talks when it comes to recruitment, and that its vastly superior spending power means that the race to contract the most talented young rugby athletes could leave a country even with England’s playing numbers picked clean.

 

Most fans of our own oval ball code will recognise that stars like Jonny Wilkinson, Jason Robinson and Martin Johnson do not come around every generation, and that they are not easily replaced. The logical extension is that if your tier of elite talent is constantly plundered your sport is in danger of losing its profile and appeal. Players crossing over between Rugby Union and American Football are the exception rather than the rule at the moment. However, the speed with which the transition can take place is evident in the contract secured by the former England Sevens captain, Alex Gray, who secured a two-year contract with the Atlanta Falcons this summer.

 

At the moment there is no player drain, with those leaving to try the American code a mere trickle. Set against that we know that the financial clout of the national bodies in Rugby Union – with the RFU the wealthiest – or clubs with multimillionaire backers, are not in the same league as an organisation like the NFL. That is why if the NFL decided to target a goal-kicker of the calibre of Owen Farrell for a new London franchise, or to sign Billy Vunipola as a linebacker, the money on offer would dwarf their Rugby Union earnings.

 

The average NFL squad player earnings are £1.44 million – which is about half a million more than Dan Carter earns in France. However, the money that star players earn is staggering, with the brilliant New England Patriots quarter-back, Tom Brady, signing a two-year deal worth £31.2 million. However, it is more likely that the NFL will target promising Rugby Union players much earlier so that their learning curve in the new sport is gradual rather than steep – and, again, the contracts would be far more lucrative than anything Rugby Union can pay.

 

If this talk of an American Football invasion sounds fanciful, it is worth considering why Tottenham have installed a revolutionary retractable second pitch in their new showpiece stadium to replace White Hart Lane. That second pitch has NFL specified dimensions and turf surface, and is kept under the Spurs pitch and then raised to replace it using sophisticated hydraulic technology. This has been done as part of Tottenham signing a deal with the NFL to play two games a season on it from 2018-19. That sort of investment does not happen by accident, and nor does the number of games the NFL are playing on this side of the Atlantic.

 

 

 

The battle for hearts, minds and playing talents between Rugby Union and American Football may be in its infancy in this country, but it has started – and having the enemy inside your gates may not be the RFU’s best strategy.

 

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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.

 

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.