Rugby’s Blame Game

 

As rugby union’s professionalism advances, and the stress on players continues to grow, only a drastic reduction in games for the elite players can avert a car crash of seismic proportions for the sport.

 

 

 

According to an excellent piece of research by player agency Esportif Intelligence, England’s players had played an average of almost 1,100 minutes (13.75 matches) of club rugby each this season before the start of the Six Nations in February

 

Figures for the other home countries were:

 

Ireland 700 minutes (8.75 matches)

 

Wales 850 minutes (10.63 matches)

 

Scotland 660 minutes (8.25 matches)

 

 

 

Even accounting for their grotesquely heavier workload than their Celtic counterparts before the tournament, it is still England’s players who are being called back to the grindstone first.  On the back of a Lions summer, the effect is plain to see as England’s performances flatlined, English clubs flopped in Europe while the Aviva Premiership stagnates.

 

 

 

Radical thinking is required – and required soon – or Ireland, Wales (whose National Dual Contract scheme is only just beginning to bear fruit) and Scotland will continue to punch well above their collective weights when it comes to player numbers and commercial clout.

 

In 1995 the RFU called a moratorium on professionalism. The “old farts” at Twickenham dithered as their amateur game burned. The clubs contracted the players and England have suffered since.  As professionalism advances and the stress on players continue to grow, only a drastic reduction in games for the top players can avert a car crash.

 

 

 

The signs are not good. Ian Ritchie, the man who presided over England’s worst ever World Cup campaign in 2015 as RFU chief executive, but was forgiven as the union wallowed in cash, was recently appointed chairman of Premiership Rugby. By all accounts a lovely bloke and decent administrator, but is he the man to deliver radical change in a sport crying out for alternative thinking? No chance!

 

 

 

The blame game will go on and the players will continue to suffer. But who will be to blame when the wheels really do come off?

 

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England’s failure. Blame it on….

After England’s failure at the Six Nations, finishing only above Italy, (at least no-
one has pretended that it was anything but a failure) the knives have all too
predictably been going in all directions. Quite a few have landed in Eddie Jones’ back, but many commentators have looked at the Irish and asked what they are doing that we’re not. The answer for many has been central contracts.

Ireland, Wales and Scotland, who finished first, second and third respectively, all use a form of central contracts. So, do New Zealand, and they’re not a bad team either.

Under the English model, the RFU effectively pays the Premiership clubs to release players called up for the national team under the terms of the Professional Game Agreement, which runs until 2024.
The advantage of central contracts is that it allows unions to control its players’ workloads and grant longer rest periods. While nine of England’s players started their season in the first weekend of September, the majority of Ireland’s contingent enjoyed an extra four weeks off. The England fly-half Owen Farrell has played 1084 minutes for Saracens this season, more than double the 435 minutes his Irish counterpart, Jonnie Sexton, has played for Leinster.
A Lions tour is a special event, but it takes much more out of the player. The last time England lost three in a row in the Six Nations was in 2006, coming after the 2005 New Zealand tour. A coincidence?
Steve Hansen, the New Zealand head coach, claimed that there is a clear difference between the energy levels of the English and Irish players. “They (Ireland) have got central contracting which allows them to maybe have a bit more control over playing time and player welfare than the countries where they don’t have that luxury” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.

But both the RFU and Premiership Rugby are adamant that the introduction of central contracts would be a non-starter, at least in the short term. Exeter Chiefs chairman Tony Rowe poured very cold water over the idea. “The RFU struggle to find the money to pay for the players they use and abuse once a year anyway” he told the Telegraph. “Central Contracts sounds great, but you can’t just cherry-pick the best players. If they want to contract our players, they would need to contract all of them and I would like to see where they are going to get the money for that from”.

But the clubs are losing, collectively, about £30 million a year. If, by some extraordinary coup, the RFU signed up the top 40 English players in the country and paid their wages, they would be saving the clubs about two-thirds of that. The RFU then has control over when and where they play. In theory, it is beautiful.
In practice though, there is a form of central contracting already. The Elite Player Squad (EPS) agreement is a contract between England and the clubs that already deals with player release and with the payment of around £2000,000 per player per year so the RFU can have some control over these lucky assets.

The first EPS agreement did not allow for player release from the clubs in the fallow weeks of the Six Nations. Now, there is also a release week before international campaigns, and an enforced break afterwards. This is central contracting lite. If England and the RFU want further control over the players then, when the next EPS contract is being negotiated, to start in 20121, the RFU should pay considerably more than £200,000 per player, and effectively buy them out of a few more club games a year. The clubs may hate losing their players, but they love the cash for which they get recompensed.

If the RFU wants to press further, it would have to pay for it. You want Daly at No. 15 for Wasps? Then pay Wasps to play him there for, say, four games a season.
There are limits though. England may want to be more Irish and completely buy up the players, but the clubs wouldn’t give it a sniff. Whoever controls the players controls the game.

Central contracting would also interfere with the sporting integrity of the Aviva Premiership. If the RFU pays the players direct, then some clubs would get international players for free, others wouldn’t. The Premiership is already lopsided enough, with Harlequins, for instance, being required to play Newcastle Falcons during the Six Nations, and therefore without a number of their best players. Central contacts would leave Quins in even less control of their assets. If the RFU wants ultimate, complete, Ireland-level control, it would have to buy up the Premiership.

As Tony Rowe would put it: “Show us your money”

Football and Rugby crowds

 

Why do you think a rugby crowd is so different from a football crowd? Even if it isn’t that different in demographics and profile, the spectator experience certainly is.

 

Basically, football fans are not trusted not to monster each other. So we’re all on CCTV in and around the ground, and the whole area around the ground is treated as a potential problem waiting to happen. Riot police and vans are everywhere. Pubs often have ‘no football colours’ statements on their doors, but none have ‘no rugby colours’. We all think we know why.

 

A friend was telling me of how 81,000 England and Australian fans co-existed peacefully at Twickenham in November, even though many were “clearly seven sheets to the wind”.

 

So, the contrast between the two sports is really remarkable. Football fans are treated like dangerous wild beasts, rugby crowds are treated like grown-ups. Although there is very little trouble at football games these days, it feels as though this is simply because of how heavily it is policed. If football supporters could be trusted to behave decently, segregation would not exist, but at no game of any size would fans not be kept apart. We are never trusted to stand shoulder to shoulder until you get down to the fifth and sixth tiers. In a supposedly civilised land, that’s simply incredible.

 

Of course, in football, there is a long history of violence between fans. It’s often said that rugby union is a middle-class sport and that this explains why people behave better, but I don’t believe this is true, not least because we all know a few middle-class people who are absolute rotters and behave terribly. It’s also an insult to the vast majority of decent working-class football fans who wouldn’t dream of putting a brick in someone’s face. And also, while there are some very middle-class people at the rugby – what I would call the red trouser brigade – mostly it isn’t that sort, it’s just regular people. The peaceful posho element is very overstated, as is the violent working class. I don’t believe we’re all that different.

 

It’s sometimes said that the aggressive on-pitch mano-a-mano nature of rugby somehow dissolves the urge for violence or aggression in the spectators. This seems a bit far-fetched as football is physical, athletic and can be aggressive too.

 

Others have speculated that footballers set a bad example by swearing at refs and generally throwing strops and trying to cheat all the time. That this facilitates and normalises similar behaviour amongst some fans, as players and crowd get caught into a self-feeding emotional loop. That, I feel, is getting closer to one of the core issues. Because it must largely be down to history and expectation. The totally different crowd experiences must be as a result of copying behavioural expectations and standards.

 

Maybe football is trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of negativity and aggression, in the same way rugby is trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of positivism and respect. It is not explainable in any other way as to why we’ve ended up with two popular sports being so divergent. I look forward to the day being in a football crowd is as enjoyable as being in a rugby crowd, and when going to and from a big game doesn’t involve skirting around metal barriers and being herded by riot police. But I’ll be honest with you, I’m not holding my breath

 

Hats off to the Aussies….

 

Yes, hats off to the Aussies….

 

Rugby, as evidenced by many a hidden vote in a transparent process, is fond of its decidedly old-school systems and hierarchy.

 

But if the appointment of Raelene Castle as the Australian Rugby Union’s new CEO was considered ground-braking, the ARU’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) was little short of revolutionary.

 

 

 

In a cycle during which the RFU dispensed with irrelevant pleasantries such as continuing to reward handsomely those females who chose to represent the RFU with such pride, the ARU have taken a more liberal economic stance, opting for matching base pay rates for their male and female athletes and installing pregnancy policies for their females as well.

 

As Ms. Castle identified during the opening stage of her tenure, the “…..female market is really hot” and currently and women’s  rugby is hard to ignore. The skill, fitness, intensity and rugby intelligence of the current female elite are light years ahead of where they were a decade ago. The last women’s World Cup was a pleasure to watch.

 

 

 

In a time when so much cash goes to so few players playing so many games. It’s refreshing to see a national union opening a wider embrace to hard-training elite athletes serving the sport.

 

Rugby must continue living on the brink if it is to move forward

 

Professional rugby union is operating on the brink, with spiralling player wages leading to smaller squads and everyone from World Rugby to Ross Moriarty being accused of greed as they look to maximise income. Sponsorship revenues continue to fall, and doubts persist over whether the next television deal will be worth the same as the last one. But can everyone stop being so miserable?

 

Rugby has thrived from living on the edge. It has never felt secure, from the days when Sir John Hall’s money drove Newcastle Falcons to the title to Wasps moving NFL-style to Coventry — but look how far the sport has come over the past two decades. The money, the attendances and the global interest in the game have all grown massively since the mid-1990s. We live in a capitalist society and if rugby is to keep growing at that pace then on the brink is exactly where we need to be, because that is what drives things forward.

 

 

 

The biggest danger is that ambition overrules business sense — exhibit A: London Welsh — but that is not unique to sport. In normal industry, businesses fail every day and those closures offer valuable lessons to others. Only the strongest survive. We have seen that in rugby too. Exeter Chiefs came up to the Aviva Premiership with a solid business model and grew to become English champions. London Welsh, in contrast, had a plan that could have been sketched on the back of a beer mat and, to the surprise of nobody, they collapsed as a professional entity.

 

Sport is different to normal industry, though, because the clubs tend to be part of the fabric of a community into which people have invested money and emotion. Therefore, there are special controls, such as the salary cap and safety nets because we are loath to let certain clubs fail. Just like the government did with RBS, the Welsh Rugby Union could not let the Dragons go out of business, so stepped in to save them.

 

The Dragons have signed Moriarty from Gloucester on a £1 million, two-year contract. The player stood accused of greed, even though he had to move to a Welsh region to play international rugby. Is it his fault that he was offered a chance to become the highest-paid player in Wales? No. It is not greed. It is market forces.

 

Moriarty moved for international rugby, not for the money. Neither George Ford nor Owen Farrell went chasing the cash when signing their latest contracts. Ford moved to Leicester Tigers and Farrell stayed at Saracens because they felt it was best for their careers. Can the Dragons afford Moriarty and George North? Only they know but if the region is to grow then they need to invest, they need to take calculated risks.

 

Rugby is like its own mini global economy. Premiership clubs want to be able to run their own affairs and their Brexit moment was to seize control of the European competitions. Having done so, things have not been as rosy as was promised during the campaign. Sound familiar?

 

There are strong arguments on both sides of the Channel that there are too many foreign players in English and French club rugby — but Polynesians represent cheap labour coming into a rich market. An English player, with an agent working on their behalf, will cost more than a Samoan player of the same ability.

 

The salary cap in the Premiership is, depending which end of the table your club sit, either an anti-competitive policy or an anti-monopoly policy. It is designed to act as a handbrake on the natural market forces. The league has to operate as a cartel because even the richest clubs would acknowledge that they need opponents to play — there is no point driving all rivals out of business. I would like to see a minimum squad size introduced because that would slow the rise in player salaries.

 

The ring-fencing argument would work against the capitalist idea of risk-taking and some of the clubs who have been down argue it was the best thing that could have happened to them. Northampton Saints and Harlequins came back to win the league. Would they have done so had relegation not forced them to redraw their business models? I doubt it.

 

The most important word in rugby economics is “yield”. Exeter posted a £1 million profit and immediately fans asked the club to reduce ticket prices and the cost of a pint. But Tony Rowe, the chief executive, wants that money to help grow the club from being English to European champions.

 

Wasps moved to Coventry because they thought that it was the best place to increase their yield and make the club sustainable.

 

The RFU’s ticket prices are extortionate for the average person and Eddie Jones was even asked to justify whether England’s display against Argentina offered value for money to supporters who had paid more than £100. And yet the stadium was sold out. The RFU is not greedy. It is trying to find the balance where it can make the most money to grow the game, while also attracting people through the turnstiles.

 

There is talk that Premiership clubs cannot afford the wages being paid. They can at the moment and clubs are trying to strike the right balance between a squad big enough to cope with the attrition rate and one good enough to win a trophy.

 

If squads became so stretched that Premiership games had to be postponed, that would force a rethink, tell us the balance was wrong and lead to a reduction in wages.

 

We are living on the edge in rugby, we have been since the game went professional and it has served us pretty well. It will continue to do so providing that the owners remain responsible custodians of their clubs.

 

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.

 

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.