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

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.

The Autumn Window is not entirely open

Rugby’s autumn internationals will be ready to rumble in a couple of weeks. England have a huge game against South Africa at Twickenham, Wales meet Scotland in Cardiff and Ireland face Italy in Chicago. These are big occasions with significant revenues. It is strange, then, that no one in charge of selling tickets, hospitality packages or television subscriptions has added a vital asterisk: two thirds of the competing countries will be fielding weakened teams.
Many people will have shelled out for a Twickenham seat – costing up to £132. Can the Boks’ key catalysts, the Wasps full-back Willie le Roux and Sale’s scrum-half Faf de Klerk, unpick the English defence again? We will never know, because neither man is permitted to play. The date of the game is outside World Rugby’s official window which means no Premiership-based player will be released, despite there being no league games scheduled that day.
There will also be no shortage of other influential absentees. Gloucester’s Franco Mostert, Wasps’ Nizaam Carr and Bath’s Francois Louw will be similarly unavailable to South Africa while Italy cannot field Jake Polledri, their impressive young Gloucester-based back-row, or Exeter’s Michele Campagnaro. Wales must do without their English contingent of Liam Williams, Dan Biggar, Tomas Francis Taulupe Faletau, Jamie Roberts, Luke Charteris and Josh Adams. Scotland’s Sean Maitland and Byron McGuigan, of Saracens and Sale respectively, further extend the list.
Does this really matter? There will, after all, still be plenty of other grateful players keen to take their places and win a cap. The Tests will still happen, the same badge-clutching anthems will be played. Premiership Rugby is obliged to release its players for only a certain number of weeks per year and all involved – hey presto! – will be available for international duty again the following week.
A shrug of the shoulders, however, misses the broader point. The vexed relationship between club and country remains rugby’s running sore, at the heart of the endless power struggle between the various factions involved. If South Africa cannot put out their strongest side for one of the biggest games of the year, then surely that cheapens the whole sport? If England win well, does that mean Eddie Jones’s side are back on track or simply that they took advantage of weakened opposition? If it is obviously the latter, everyone loses out.
Of course, there is the weighty counter argument that Test matches should not be scheduled outside the window anyway. The accusation, not without foundation, is that these games exist only for financial rather than sporting reasons, that the unions involved care little for the clubs’ interests and are happy to ride roughshod over the domestic schedule. Twenty-three years after the game went professional the whole self-harming debate rages on. World Rugby has confirmed that it is looking to jazz up the July and November windows by making the matches collectively more meaningful; the Rugby Football Union and the English clubs are set to confirm soon what their vision for the newly structured calendar from 2020 looks like.
What both sides are overlooking in all this are the players: where is the schedule that allows Le Roux, say, to display his brilliance for both club and country and enjoy sufficient rest to ensure the magic keeps happening for years to come? The abrupt departure of Joe Marler from the Test scene may or may not have been a symptom of burnout – the Harlequins prop is a devoted family man – but it is obvious that, physically and mentally, the game is accelerating towards a place where it will no longer soon be practicable or healthy for one individual to play upwards of 30 games – soon enough that might be 20 – in a calendar year.
It is in everyone’s interests to sit down together and reassess. Tests absolutely have to matter, clubs need their own uninterrupted space and the players should be consulted more. Is it, in the end, really that complicated?

Is it so bad if Rugby turns into Football?

The new rugby season is a month old, but this is my first blog of the season, so let’s ride my hobby-horse of how rugby is coming to resemble football.
It is because the cry, so often last season, was that rugby was becoming football. Coaches being sacked, the developing transfer market, players talking back to referees, players owning Louis Vuitton manbags. We are all doomed. What has happened to the game? You have heard it all. You know the script.
My continuing message is that this is inevitable. Yes, rugby is following football. Enjoy it. It could be one hell of a ride.
Peter Kenyon was chief executive of Manchester United and then Chelsea and the very reason that he has got into rugby was because he recognised the pattern. “What I saw was a lot of the trends that were starting to come into rugby: player movement, foreign ownership, TV and media rights, reorganisation of the competitions,” he said in a Times interview. “It all resonated with where football had been 20 to 25 years ago. The correlation was really strong.”
Kenyon’s main point is that club rugby is under commercialised. “Rugby went professional and not a lot changed,” he said. “They got full-time salaries, but the environment didn’t change, the sponsorship and TV did not change. The game format did not change. All that happened was the clubs were saddled with huge extra cost.”
I agree. The Premiership, in particular, is a great product but still too much of a hidden secret. Crowds and TV audiences only creep up incrementally. Saracens should be a massive national brand rather than a quiet success story at the foot of the A1.
It has been compared to NFL in the late Seventies: underdeveloped, uncommercial. That is good because what if it could follow the NFL route? Kenyon believes that it can follow in football’s direction: “I think it is poised for the next change. The athletes are serious athletes. The game is well formatted, it’s a really good TV watch. You can have that next lift now.”
There is an occasional feeling around rugby that the good old game is being forced reluctantly into a modern world that looks like football. To hell with that, it is just part of the deal — at least that is Kenyon’s take on a lot of it.
Is a looser player transfer market on the horizon? “For sure. Those shifts — once they start, they just happen.” The rising power of the club game? “Club rugby will become stronger, which is good, and it’s not necessarily at the expense of the international game.” Job security for coaches plummeting as impatient owners search for the winning formula? “Yes, we are all in this world of immediate success, pressure to perform.”
In summary, professionalism brings money that brings conflict. “Yes, that’s the reality. Over the next ten to 15 years, there’s going to be a lot of money.”
Professionalism brings a different type of personality to the game. Again, irreversible, though, in this case, lamentable.
“Some of the player trends are going the same way [as football],” Kenyon says. “That is inevitable. If you are going professional or in an academy from when you are 16 or 18, you get cocooned. Your education is not as wide. You lose that roundness, you lose that sense of reality with the rest of the world.”
Rugby does sometimes teeter dangerously into smugness. “The attitude of: ‘We are the best’ is absolutely wrong,” Kenyon says. He does see rugby’s values being retained: “It is discipline, it is respect; it is those things.”
Clearly rugby has a job to do to retain that. The England football team in Russia showed that professional athletes can emerge from their cocoons and have their followers proud of who they are as well as how they play. As we head to next year’s rugby World Cup, the England team would do well to heed the precedent.
If they do and, better still, if they do well at the World Cup, maybe they can help to inspire the next step change. Kenyon equates rugby to football pre-1992: most owners were wealthy local businessmen, then Gazza cried, Sky TV arrived, and the Premier League was formed — the game exploded.
Just because rugby is where football was then does not necessarily mean that it will follow. Kenyon sees foreign ownership coming into rugby clubs. I am not so sure; I see those local owners still footing a very expensive bill.

Mallinder’s Northampton downfall has parallels with Wenger at Arsenal

Longevity has come up short. The announcement that Arsène Wenger would leave Arsenal meant this season was the last for the longest-serving club heads in football and rugby’s premierships.
Similar to Wenger at Arsenal, Jim Mallinder at Northampton had gone from managing the champions to missing out on a place in the top four for two successive seasons, and the highly likely prospect of a third forced the Saints to sack him in December, 10 years after he was appointed their director of rugby.
If Arsenal’s decline under Wenger was gradual at first before gathering momentum, Northampton were Premiership champions in 2014 having reached their first final the year before. After wobbling for one season, they lost their balance and their struggles in the Premiership were compounded by heavy defeats in Europe: they have conceded 438 points in the Champions Cup in their last 12 group matches, an average of more than 36.

Success in football is often fashioned by finance, the richest rising to the top, although Leicester City were an exception two years ago. Wenger’s misfortune was that the £450m investment by the Arsenal absentee owner, Stan Kroenke, went into the bank accounts of shareholders, not the club’s, but the salary cap in the Premiership provides a more level field, even if it allows for a couple of marquee signings.
Northampton, like Arsenal, are trying to run a model business, investing in the playing side what they earn rather than relying on a backer. The same applies to Harlequins, who recently announced that John Kingston would stand down as Director of Rugby at the end of the campaign, ending a 17-year association with the club, most of which was spent as a coach. Another era is coming to an end.
There have been concerns that rugby union is resembling football, hiring one year and firing the next, but the top four clubs in the Premiership – Exeter, Saracens, Wasps and Newcastle – are models of stability having appointed their head coaches/directors of rugby in 2009, 2011, 2011 and 2012 respectively. Beneath them, only Sale in seventh match that, with Steve Diamond taking over in 2012.
Successful coaches and managers rarely get sacked, unless they work for Chelsea, but what defines success? Would Sale finishing sixth be as notable an achievement as Saracens regaining the title? Wenger was ridiculed for turning Arsenal from a side that competed for, and won, the title to a side content to finish in the top four, which they did for his first 20 years in charge.
By the standards of history, he was mightily successful but, judged by what he had previously achieved, he was failing – as was Mallinder at Northampton – and had to be shoved out in a downfall reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s when those she felt owed her loyalty pointed out the blindingly obvious.
Mallinder and Wenger largely relied on the same group of coaches during their reigns and became tactically stale. Alex King was brought in to rejuvenate the Saints’ attack but was cast out when the slump started. Continued success comes down to the art of regeneration, something Sir Alex Ferguson was a master of. While he remained in control at Manchester United, he regularly changed his second-in-command, bringing in a new voice as well as fresh ideas, a silversmith like no other.
Warren Gatland will have been Wales’ head coach for 12 years when he leaves the position after their involvement in next year’s World Cup ends. He has kept his management team intact throughout, tweaked only in the two years he was on sabbatical with the Lions. They last won the Six Nations title in 2013 and, like Northampton, found that tactics that delivered titles once had dated.

Wales are in a far healthier position than they were for most of the 20 years before Gatland took over, when coaches entered the Arms Park through a revolving door, and he regularly refreshes his squad, afraid to drop no one. Whoever takes over will, like Chris Boyd at Franklin’s Gardens in the summer, face a rebuilding job. A number of players who have made their mark with the Lions as well as Wales will not be around for the 2023 World Cup and there will be a stylistic shift.
New Zealand’s Steve Hansen is preparing for his fourth World Cup with the All Blacks, and second in charge, but the management team is markedly different to the one he joined in 2004. The All Blacks through the years have been not only been receptive to new ideas but pioneering, one of the few to look at the positive possibilities of law changes.
There was a time when New Zealand coaches had to sneak back home after failing to win the World Cup but only defeat to a minnow will sour Hansen’s legacy. Northampton’s supporters never had a chance to say farewell to Mallinder and, while the majority accepted the time for change had arrived, they acknowledged his achievements and viewed his departure with sorrow rather than relief.
It is the opposite with Wenger. The mood before the match at the Emirates Stadium against West Ham, the first after the announcement, was as if a distant cousin had departed rather than a close relative. There were not enough at the ground who could remember that for most of his reign the club had never had it so consistently good. The past is a foreign country; the present tense.