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.