What if Germany bothered with rugby?

Amidst the plethora of rugby internationals this autumn probably the only real shock was Ireland’s victory against New Zealand in Chicago.

Overlooked by most was the result of a game in Frankfurt where Germany defeated Uruguay 24 – 21 after trailing 15-6 at the interval.  Uruguay started the day 19th in the world rankings, seven places ahead of Germany, who won the match with the last kick of the game.

Last season, Germany avoided relegation from the top division of the European Rugby Championship, and their stated ambition is to qualify for the World Cup, in 2023 if not 2019. World Rugby is anxious for the game to take off there as it looks to widen rugby’s commercial boundaries; beating Uruguay ( who we must remember were in England’s group at last year’s World Cup) was a good start.

Could we be approaching the day when Germany and England meet in a full Test match? After all, beating England via penalties would hardly be a German first…….

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

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The Rugby Calendar is still a mess

Rugby Calendar is still a mess

 

Amidst the plethora of internationals over recent weekends all but the most diligent rugby fan might have missed that the Anglo-Welsh Cup was being played.

The Anglo-Welsh competition (which incidentally does not even have a sponsor) may be small fry in the greater scheme of rugby things, but as a development tournament it allows clubs the chance to rest some big names and blood youngsters. ( Maro Itoje captained Saracens to the title in 2014/15).But it also has the most complicated qualifying system in rugby; there are four pools of four – but you do not actually play any sides in your pool.

 

Now a weekend ago we had an Anglo-Welsh competition without any Welsh clubs playing in it because there was a full programme of Guinness Pro12 matches.

So when you cannot align fallow weekends in the Aviva Premiership and the Pro 12 for such a competition (we have just had an all-Welsh round when the Premiership is on!) you do begin to worry.

Mind you, we have also had the farcical situation whereby two Welsh Pro12 derbies (and the only games where the Welsh regions can really make any money) were played without their top players because someone, somewhere, had seemingly forgotten Wales were in camp and thus were not obliged to release their players ahead of the debacle against Australia.

 

That test in Cardiff also threw up some uncomfortable questions, with a crowd of only 55,776. It was played outside World Rugby’s autumn window, and played purely for financial reasons. Australia of course were handsomely paid for turning up, as they will be by England on December 3, another test played outside of the window. That game will be Australia’s 15th Test of the year. They have all been played since June so they have been averaging more than one every two weeks.

 

Therein lies the rub. Rugby union is fast approaching a crossroads, with 2019 as its junction, and no schedule agreed thereafter. There is evidently much jockeying for position going on, much hot air being spouted (Such as New Zealand threatening to go it alone) and all the while a ridiculous schedule continues. That All Blacks game in Chicago, for all the significance of the result, being outside the window and really only about the money.

An agreed global season looks like a pipe dream quite frankly. Aligning north and south would be just as impossible as currently aligning domestic and international schedules, but there has to be some serious compromising.

Banning money-spinning autumn internationals outside the window might be a start.

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

England won’t be going North anytime soon

Welcome to the month of November when half the world’s planes seem to be stuffed with rugby players. Most have no choice if they wish to pursue their chosen trade. Ireland and New Zealand were in Chicago while Australia and South Africa were in London. Fiji are training in Toulouse, with England opting for a short warm-weather break in Portugal. There are almost as many gumshields passing through departure lounges as giant Toblerones.

There is good reason for this hyperactivity. The game is increasingly global and spreading the gospel can be lucrative. The All Blacks were not in the States purely for the fresh Illinois air and Argentina did not stage their Rugby Championship Test against Australia at Twickenham last month because of the local tango-dancing scene. Beyond the financial inducements, though, there are additional benefits: a change of scene can eradicate staleness and complacency and create unexpected new friendships.

Last season’s Top 14 final in Barcelona was a case in point. It was shifted to Catalonia only because French stadiums were being used for the European football championship but the staggering attendance and vivid atmosphere made every continental administrator sit up and take notice.

Which brings us back, not for the first time, to the Rugby Football Union’s narrower horizons. Aside from one short hop across the Irish Sea to Dublin next March, their flight to Portugal is the only time the majority of England’s senior squad will have to board a flight on international business between now and next June. With just about everything the RFU organises occurring in the Home Counties, a valid driving licence and an Oyster card are pretty much the only requirements.

Once again all four England internationals this autumn will take place at Twickenham on successive Saturdays. Financially, the schedule stacks up nicely. Four 80,000-plus attendances, in addition to all the associated corporate hospitality benefits and huge bar profits, will clearly swell the coffers more than taking the odd home Test fixture out on the road.

But hang on. This is a union which has just posted revenues of £407.1m, with record profits for rugby investment of £102.3m. Admittedly a large chunk of that was a consequence of staging the 2015 World Cup but the RFU is far wealthier than any other union. Where it has been less obviously successful is in raising the profile of rugby union in the north of England, a recurring issue that does little to promote the 15-a-side code as a truly national sport.

It can be easy, and somewhat misleading, to dismiss English rugby league as a game played in just a few northern counties. But what about the latest England senior rugby union team? Before josh Beaumont was called in as an injury replacement, only one member of the 33-strong training squad currently plays for a northern club. Sale’s Mike Haley is that rarest of comets, a northern resident who has caught Twickenham’s attention. None of the other 32 lives north of Leicestershire. Before last autumn’s dead rubber against Uruguay, England had hosted one full international in Manchester since 1897.

With Ian Ritchie as chief executive and another northerner, Andy Cosslett, recently sworn in as the RFU’s new chairman, it is not as if there is a lack of appreciation inside Twickenham that the world does not stop at Watford Gap services. Apparently there remains a continuing desire for representative teams to play at northern venues but, crucially, not the senior XV.

It is not good enough. Where would English football be without strong northern clubs? How insular would English cricket look if it did not stage a single Test or one-day international north of the River Trent? How does English rugby union plan to enthuse youngsters and their families from Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumbria if it gives league a largely unopposed head start? Is it entirely a coincidence that northern lads – Chris Ashton, Sam Burgess, and David Strettle – seem increasingly more comfortable with the idea of playing abroad than sticking around in English union. Or that the two main northern cogs in England’s backline – Owen Farrell and George Ford – gravitated towards union largely because their fathers took coaching jobs down south? Tommy Taylor and Danny Care bring the total number of northern-born players in Portugal to a measly half dozen.

Maybe it is idealistic to think that playing a Test match against Fiji – or Australia come to that – in Leeds or Manchester would directly assist England in winning the 2019 World Cup. Maybe the RFU’s profits would be affected. Maybe it would be less convenient for Eddie Jones to train his players beside the seaside in Blackpool or Bridlington than in Brighton or Brown’s sporting academy in Portugal. But New Zealand train and play at venues all around their country and it does not hinder their national team – the opposite, in fact. Sticking to convention and doing what you always do is no way to run or grow a sport, let alone deliver a truly national side. England do not even have to board a plane to locate fresh new frontiers.

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

 

Rugby union should be wary of following football into financial fantasy land

As English football struggles to find its way through the clouds blown up by the Sam Allardyce affair,  it is perhaps as well for rugby union that there is barely a transfer market to speak of and no scope for third party ownership.

Football is awash with money, but it is not the root of all evil. The salaries of some Premier League managers exceed the salary cap in the Aviva Premiership, and while there was a whiff of scandal last year with allegations of cap irregularities investigated and buried, there is far from a financial surfeit at the top level.

Leicester Tigers chief executive Simon Cohen is already warning that the premiership salary cap is at a dangerously high level. For there is now a clear dividing line in the Premiership between those clubs, such as Leicester, Gloucester, Northampton and Harlequins and Sale who spend what they earn and others such as Saracens and Bath, who have loaded backers, and Wasps, who raised £35m through a bond scheme.

Cohen’s point, which contained the implicit message that clubs trying to live within their means were being forced to keep up with those prepared to carry debt, was that wage inflation had reached a level where all players, whether top internationals or rank and file, were earning considerably more than a few years ago and that squad sizes were, as a consequence, shrinking.

“Smaller squads are detrimental to player welfare,” he said. “Players will play more matches in a sport that is becoming quicker and faster with bigger hits coming in all the time. I think the salary cap is at a point where it will be dangerous for the game if it goes higher. Spending on players is going up from £60m to £80m this season and a huge amount of revenue that could have gone into stands, community projects and developing the game, has gone straight into the pockets of players at a time when it is becoming much, much harder to fund the salary cap.”

At least the Premiership has a fixed cap which every club has to adhere to. It is different in the Pro12 where most of the sides are funded directly by their unions. The Welsh regions have a salary limit of £4.5m which is less than their rivals in other countries, but they have some relief in the form of national player contracts which means the Welsh Rugby Union pays the bulk of the wages of the (relatively few) players concerned.

In France, the cap is £10m, although there are ways to extend it, as Racing 92 are doing with Dan Carter and Toulon did with Jonny Wilkinson, and bonuses are allowed on top of the cap as long as they do not exceed 10% of it. It is rigorously, and transparently, policed as Toulon found out last season when fined for breaching the bonus limit, an affront the club’s owner Mourad Boudjellal, who is still sore enough to question whether he wants to remain in the game.

Clubs in England and France have in the past couple of seasons enjoyed a substantial increase in revenue due to television and sponsorship deals. Cohen’s contention is that, like football where the Premier League has had an explosion in income since Sky was joined in the rights’ pursuit by BT, the extra money goes on wages with little filtering its way into improved facilities, investment or subsidising costs borne by supporters. It is to football’s( the round ball variety) shame that despite all 20 Premier League clubs being on European football’s rich list, they make players and managers multi-millionaires while expecting supporters to, at best, cough up as much as before.

The more they have, the more they spend to the point where they are no better off. If the bubble bursts, supporters will not switch allegiances like players and will be the ones counting the cost.

Rugby union remains a sport where interaction with paying supporters remains important. It was not that long ago that Leicester were among the clubs lobbying for a rise in the salary cap to help English clubs compete with the French and Irish in Europe: the best supported club in the country had the means to fund the increase, but others now have greater spending power through debts that are guaranteed.

Premiership Rugby did not enjoy its finest hour last year when revealing the outcome of the salary cap investigation into whether certain, unnamed clubs had exploited a loophole or two. It seemed to be a case of “we know who it is, and if they do it again, there may be trouble.” It says it has tightened up procedures, but supporters are entitled to transparency on a French level.

Clubs in France are often mocked for their spending, but anyone who either exceeds the cap or fails to provide the means to pay the budget it declared at the start of a season is punished severely; relegation in the case of the latter.

Financial fair play in England would be a start to ensure that clubs bankrolled by debt do not threaten the financial models of those who balance the books. The salary cap has reached its sustainable level for the near future and as recent events in football have shown, rugby needs to keep in contact with its roots, not unreality.

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

 

Pumas are simply following the money

When the Sex Pistols reformed in 1996 they offered no pretence as to why, naming their comeback the “Filthy Lucre” tour.

On Saturday evening just under 50,000 people watched Argentina lose to Australia in the Southern hemisphere Rugby Championship. The game was played at Twickenham Stadium, London, England.

When Australia last played Argentina away the game was staged in Mendoza in front of 25,000. When the two sides met in Perth last month fewer than 17,000 turned up. The last four matches between Australia and Argentina in the tournament have been watched by fewer than 72,000 spectators.

Argentina may have been a bit more delicate than the Sex Pistols about their decision to sacrifice home advantage and play Australia at Twickenham, but it all adds up to the same thing – money.

 

With Sanzar’s desire to have the income generated by Test matches between tier one nations pooled, including Lions tours, understandably not generating much support in Europe, Saturday could be seen as a foretaste of matches to come.

On hearing that Argentina would be playing Argentina at Twickenham, England’s Ben Young‘s reaction was: “I couldn’t imagine going to Melbourne to play a test against Ireland.” But the point is England have no need to leave Twickenham to attract a big crowd.

New Zealand have already played Australia in Hong Kong and will take on Ireland in Chicago this autumn as part of their bid to tap into new markets and broaden their commercial base. England’s advice to the World Champions was to build a new, suitably large, stadium rather than take tests around a country that is made up of two islands – an attitude that suggests the R.F.U. is not too bothered about how their supporters in the northern part of the country manage to get to Twickenham and back up to six or seven times a year. Ian Ritchie, the RFU chief executive, refuses even to countenance a match in the north of England, never mind North America.

 

If England laugh at the suggestion Test match income should be pooled, how would they react to a request by New Zealand to play a match at Twickenham? By demanding a high rental fee probably. But if the friendly international calendar changes after 2019 so that neither hemisphere has to embark on an end-of-season tour, then end of August into September could become the window for what are now the autumn and summer series, blending the two into one. The All Blacks could play England at Twickenham on consecutive weekends, or Wales in Cardiff or France in Paris, away in the first and home in the second, thereby banking far more than they would for a match at Eden Park

 

Club borders are already expanding. The Aviva Premiership ventured into the United States last season when London Irish played Saracens in New Jersey. The French Top14 played its final last year at the Nou Camp in Barcelona in front of a full house.

Players have moved from the south to the north in ever growing numbers in the professional era, following the money just as their countries now are. Oregan Hoskins, the former president of South African Rugby, said recently that he believed South Africa should leave Sanzar (and therefore Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship) and link up with the European unions, taking advantage of the same time zone. He is speaking against a backdrop in his country of falling gates, fewer television viewers and the loss of sponsors.

The figures may mean that South Africa heed Hopkins’s advice and act out of self-interest rather than solidarity. If he had floated his idea a generation ago, when the south was the powerhouse of the game on the field and in the bank he would have been laughed at.  But not anymore, which is why Argentina and Australia, two countries not in Europe’s time zone were playing in London on the money trail.

 

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

Rugby follows football….Oh dear

Wasps were comfortably holding on to their 13-5 lead against Northampton last weekend, when the referee awarded the home side a penalty after Wasps’ Jimmy Gopperth gave him some verbals.At one stage his indiscretion threatened to cost his team the match, and his coach, Dai young, pointed out that while it is difficult for players not to shout at a referee in the heat of the moment, players have been made aware of the Premiership crackdown on dissent, and should not be allowed to fulminate like footballers.

 

In the same match Saints full back Ben Foden was clattered late by Nathan Hughes, and had a long look at the referee before writhing around in pain. He is not the first rugby player taken to rolling around on the floor after being body-checked or late tackled and then casting a beady eye on the referee or touch-judge to see if their con act has worked. Obviously it’s football’s fault, a sport long plagued by players as if they were auditioning for Swan Lake.

 

At the Bristol/Exeter match over the same weekend there were reports of a “skirmish” between rival fans in the South Stand at Ashton Gate.  In the grand scheme of things there will be those rugby apologists who argue that it was only a flashpoint incident, and that such booze-filled altercations have been routine down the years at football grounds. And after all, Ashton Gate also hosts Bristol City, so perhaps there was something in the air.

 

But it ill-behoves rugby to try and claim any moral high ground up against football. Consider that we have just had Chris Ashworth’s biting incident, an act of gouging by Brive fly-half Matthieu Ugalde in France’s Top 14, reports in New Zealand of a “lewd” evening involving a Super Rugby franchise , and a young player spared jail for a vicious assault as it might impact on his developing career.

 

Rugby can certainly not afford to be smug.

 

 

 

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

Time for a Rugby European Super League?

Time for a European Super League?

 

There is never a dull moment with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal, not least his wheeze that his club should leave the Top14 and join the Aviva Premiership. Most commentators appear to have dismissed this notion out of hand, but his suggestion could be the thin end of the wedge.

For there are some who would undoubtedly prefer a European Super League  to the current national league set-ups, and , with the European Champions Cup proving, so far , not to be the pot of gold promised a few years ago, there is bound to be a serious proposal to that effect.

The Irish in their glory days might have gone for it, as might some of the wealthier French clubs, and no doubt one or two Premiership clubs could be tempted by the idea.

But just imagine what that would mean for English fans. Week after week we now have derbies that stir up old enmities that have existed in some cases for more than a century, and then on a few weekends each season the European competitions offer the chance to see how other countries play their rugby.

All of that would change if ever there was a European League, and I suspect anyone who advocates such a move doesn’t care an awful lot about the fans. It would effectively end travelling support, and the character of the game would be irrevocably changed for the worse.

That is already the Super Rugby route, where television money is what really matters, and gate receipts are an ever-decreasing proportion of a team’s total revenue.

There is a natural parallel with football, where the most powerful clubs are steadily trying to wrest power away from the central organising body UEFA. Their obsession is with money and it is dividing the game into the elite clubs and the rest.

The worrying signs are that rugby is going the same way, and that must be a worry.