TV bosses need to be kept in line

Warren Gatland has remarked that France and Ireland have opened the Six Nations against the two weakest teams, Italy and Scotland, with alarming frequency.
For the record: France 11 times in 15 seasons, and Ireland nine, compared to England (six) and Wales (just four).

The Wales coach noted that getting a good start is crucial, and questioned whether TV broadcasters were influencing the schedule. He added:” I don’t know if there should be a rota…some teams have obviously had easier starts on a regular basis than others.”

We all know that TV money makes the world go round, but isn’t it time for the rugby suits to stand up and be counted when it comes to representing the best interests of the sport.
There is a balance to be truck between a good commercial deal with broadcasters that helps to cement the foundations of the professional game, and kowtowing to their every demand for fear that they will take their money elsewhere. At the moment that balance is out of kilter, mainly because rugby’s committee men cannot bring themselves to say no to the television brokers.

For instance, the BBC should have been told that the last round of the Six Nations has to be played simultaneously because with a staggered schedule. The integrity of the tournament is devalued if the teams that play last know exactly what they have to do to win
England had that advantage this year, just as Ireland did in Paris last year, but however good the outcome for supporters and TV ratings, it is wrong.
Mike Miles

Rugby World Cup round up

With the dust beginning to settle on the Six Nations, and every rugby fan and his dog having an opinion as to the make-up of their national side, it’s probably an appropriate time to take a stock-check as to what has been happening off the pitch World Cup-wise.

Tickets: There was never likely to be a problem selling the vast majority of tickets for Britain’s biggest sporting event since the 2012 Olympics. In September’s ballot there were more than five million applications for the 950,000 which were ultimately snapped up, easily a Rugby World Cup record.
There were 650,000 applications for England’s Pool A clash with Australia, and 500,000 for the Twickenham final. However, other matches and venues have proved a much harder sell, particularly those in Leicester, a stronghold of English rugby, which has not responded well to Welford Road being snubbed as a venue or the quality of the three matches it has been offered. Tickets for all three matches at the King Power Stadium are still available, including some for £35 for Canada against Romania.

Doubt has also been cast on the wisdom of allowing Wales to virtually co-host the tournament, with half of the eight games at the Millennium Stadium still unsold, including Wales v Uruguay. France v Italy at Twickenham, Ireland v Romania at Wembley, and Samoa v Scotland at St. James’ Park also still boast availability.
Tens if not hundreds of thousands of tickets for other matches will also come online from the end of March through hand-backs from sponsors, and via the official face-value resale platform.
There is also the secondary market, although exploiting that avenue breaches ticketing terms and conditions and stadiums reserve the right to turn away anyone in possession of such a ticket. One for the final was recently available on a secondary site for £59,000 – more than 80 times face value.

Transport and Security: Ensuring the safety of those attending matches is the top priority of any tournament organiser. The Olympics proved Britain could manage that in an era of international terrorism, although World Cup chiefs will be determined to avoid a repeat of the security debacle which led to the armed forces being called in as cover pre-Games.
Security of organisers’ transport plans has focussed largely on Twickenham, where most of the group games will kick off at 8pm-an unusual time for a Test match there. Getting people to and from the stadium quickly has not been helped by legal challenges to plans to revamp Twickenham station, which will not be complete before the tournament.
However, getting home via rail has been made far easier during the past year; while there will be increased capacity to and from the station on World Cup match days. There will also be a post-match bus service into Waterloo direct from the stadium.
One of the biggest fusses was caused by the commandeering of car parks around the ground for hospitality tents, spelling the end of car-boot picnics next to the West Stand. There will instead be park-and-ride services from Whitton and Kempton Park. The A316 near the stadium will be partially closed on match days to allow for improved access.

National Engagement: World Rugby’s demand of an £80million fee for the right to stage the tournament meant organizers had no choice but to snub several traditional rugby grounds in favour of large-capacity football stadiums to generate the necessary revenue. It has also made for a southern-centric and London-centric event, with Twickenham, the Millennium Stadium, Wembley and the Olympic Stadium hosting more than half of the 48 matches between them.
Old Trafford pulling out of staging games hardly helped organisers fulfil their commitment to take the World Cup beyond its traditional heartlands. Only one match will be played in the north-West (England v Uruguay at the Etihad Stadium) with just five more at St James’ Park and Elland Road.
Fan zones will therefore be crucial in making people feel they are a key part of a nationwide festival of rugby. Visiting teams can also help enthuse communities in which they are based. Organisers are no doubt hoping the Trophy Tour, the UK leg of which begins on June 10, has the same galvanising effect on the country as the 2012 Torch Relay. The Webb Ellis Cup will travel the length and breadth of Great Britain ahead of the September 18 kick-off.
However, unlike the Olympics, the Rugby World Cup will have to compete with Premier League and Champions League football for attention.

Legacy: The Olympics proved that simply putting on a major event was no guarantee of a sporting legacy and the Rugby Football Union has even less excuse for failing to capitalise on the tournament to get more people playing, coaching and officiating. Concrete plans have long been in place and pre-tournament targets appear to be being met.
But getting those spectators who are experiencing the sport for the first time to stick with it will be another major challenge, particularly as many of those who have bought tickets would be classed as novices.
Rugby’s rules can be impenetrable even for the initiated but understanding the difference between “offside” and “going in from the side”, and even why these are offences is certain to bamboozle those trying to make sense of a game with a plethora of arcane rules and practices. Yet care must be taken not to insult the intelligence of those steeped in the game by going overboard in explaining the sport’s every nuance.

Mike Miles

Is English Rugby too London-centric?

The final weeks of the Six Nations Championship should be a celebration of all that is great about rugby union in the northern hemisphere. Instead, regardless of who wins the title the argument about precisely where the sport is heading, on and off the field, is intensifying. As we approach the 20th “anniversary” of professionalism, fresh battle lines are being drawn.

The Harlequins director of rugby, Conor O’Shea, hit the nail squarely on the head when he raised the most important question of all: what kind of game do people want? “ If it is a sin to want to play rugby, and not just kick-chase and put pressure on the defence, then I think the game has a massive question to ask itself,” said O’Shea, echoing the view of the New Zealand coach, Steve Hansen, that modern rugby was in danger of becoming boring to watch.

With a World Cup looming this is not an ideal moment PR-wise, for the coach of the world’s best team to suggest spectators might prefer to bring along their knitting to the tournament this autumn. Ultimately, though, it is all part of a fundamental debate that has to happen. Now is the time to look beyond rugby’s vested interests and decide how the game can be improved for all in future, particularly those struggling on the sport’s geographical peripheries.

In domestic terms, Newcastle Falcons are a perfect case study. Their managing director, Mick Hogan, believes the capacity crowds filling Twickenham mask a range of uncomfortable issues. The World Cup will be washing up on the Geordie shore this autumn, but Hogan still reckons the rugby authorities in England are far too Twickenham-centric. “Every single England game, every major final, every sponsor launch and every meeting takes place in London. The sport is wider than just that. Imagine if you committed to taking one of the England games or major finals away from Twickenham. Imagine the impact that would have!”
Hogan even argues that the Rugby Football Union should hand over the development of the community game to people such as him, with years of experience of selling in a tough environment.

The RFU, as one might expect, sees things differently. It points out that it invests £30m annually in the grassroots game in England and argues that an increasingly difficult marketplace makes growing player numbers a big ask. Clubs of all sizes though will tell you times are getting tougher, full stop. Few would disagree with Hogan in at least one respect: “We’re now at a pivotal time for the sport, with the World Cup coming up and the game being professional for 20 years. How can we manage the ambitions of everyone?”

Which brings us back to Hansen and O’Shea. When the marketers and the game’s leading coaches are both singing from the same hymn sheet, it is short-sighted to ignore them. If the sport wishes to broaden its appeal significantly, simply doing things the way they have always been done is not the answer.

Mike Miles

Are you being turned on to Rugby by the Six Nations ?

Virtually every day my email reminds me how few days remain until the World Cup, and proudly promises me the best World Cup ever. But on the evidence of the Six Nations so far it will take one hell of a leap of the imagination to believe that promise.
The Six Nations Championship is meant to be the shop window of European rugby union, the time for the casual rugby fan to pause and see if the product is one to catch the eye. And in a home World Cup year this is even more the case.

In my opinion the tournament is damaged goods. Those buying into rugby expect pace, excitement, some up-tempo sport – and tries… Instead the sport is relying on advertising and marketing to fool as many of the people for as much of the time as possible.
Perhaps the World Cup will be the biggest party, the best organised, and perhaps it will make the financial profits promised as the ad men flog the sport for all it is worth.
But the grim truth on the field is that the Six Nations is delivering some of the most static sport imaginable. Purists may have looked appreciatively at Ireland’s tactical mastery against England, but to this fan, putting my English rose to one side, there was nothing to entice me further into rugby’s tent to see what the sport has to offer.

Steve Hansen, the New Zealand Word Cup-winning coach, was in Europe a few weeks ago. He watched Wales’s 20-13 victory over France, and England’s 19-9 defeat by Ireland in Dublin. As a reward for the price of his air fare and match tickets Hansen saw three tries. He may have stopped short of asking for his money back, but in an interview with the Western Mail, the former Wales coach expressed his fears that spectators will be less likely to part with their money unless the game’s attacking talents are seen more often “I’ve actually got big concerns about the game at the moment, because there are not enough tries being scored, which is turning the fans away,” Hansen said.
There is seldom a time when rugby is not ruminating about some aspect or other of its arcane laws, but for a sport with ambitions of pushing back its participatory and geographical boundaries, Hansen’s words should strike a particularly harsh chord, with the World Cup only six months away.
“We are about to go into a showpiece for the game,” he said. “There are millions of people watching it and all you are going to see is people kick goals.”

Mike Miles

Change this Promotion Mess

Another weekend, another thrashing. and when its London Irish putting 50 points past you at home you know you are in trouble. London Welsh’s second stint in the Premiership has been an ugly stain on not only the face of English rugby but the reputation of one of the oldest clubs in the world.Welsh have a formidable legal team behind them, whose persistence created this sorry mess in the first place , and one hopes they are successful challenging the injustices surrounding the funds available to Premiership newcomers.

But it is another injustice that needs just as much attention.As talking points go, this one is being done to death I know, but it cannot be talked about too much.The play-off system for promotion to the Premiership must be scrapped.The damage to everyone’s reputation was done not so much at the end of last season when Welsh used their parachute payment to regain their place in the top flight, but two years before that when they were promoted in the first place.

Except they were not in the first place.Welsh went up as the fourth best team in the Championship and were clearly not ready.Premiership rugby should have focused then less on the obviously flawed argument surrounding primacy of tenure and more on the dismantling of a play-off system, designed by the RFU, whose findings re the best team or otherwise in the Championship they were obliged to accept. They should still be fighting to dismantle it.

Mike Miles