On the weekend when the Aviva Premiership season kicked off there was this headline in The Telegraph: “We’re moving towards football, slowly but surely – it’s very sad”
While the article started off by congratulating the sport on the increased number of spectators it was attracting, it’s increased television audiences, how sponsors were falling over themselves to get a piece of the Premiership, and just how brilliant the product is, then came the rub….the increasing disquiet from “leading figures” at the effect that this new money is having. In an age of increased commercialism and professionalism can rugby’s “traditional values” survive? In other words, is rugby becoming more like football?
Rugby’s “values” are often cited as a stick with which to beat football. Bath coach Todd Blackadder (insert own pun here) has said that “Respect is a cornerstone of what rugby is all about. Sportmanship, which you see after every game, and during the game.” Now long may that continue, and I for one wish many footballers of the round-ball variety would behave in such a way. But I’ve watched enough rugby to see that petty ways of disrespecting the opposition, stimulation and the like have been creeping in for a while.
An inevitable consequence of more money is greater expectation and pressure to deliver results from everybody. Over the past 18 months, eight of the 13 Premiership clubs have changed their coaching set-ups. The rugby transfer market is also evolving. The £1million transfer fee Montpellier paid Northampton for their player-of-the-year Louis Picamoles ( when he was only a year into a three-year contract and on one of the highest salaries in English rugby) , and the reported £1 million salary Bristol ( a Championship club remember) are offering Charles Piutau will set a benchmark others will no doubt be tempted to follow.
I would argue that emulating football’s Premier League is not such a bad thing. Since its inception a quarter of a century ago (and only three years before rugby stumbled into professionalism) it has become arguably Britain’s greatest cultural beacon/sporting soap opera, broadcast in 212 territories worldwide. Clearly, the Premiership and Premier League operate in different financial spheres and operate different strategies in terms of scale, but if I had a message to rugby it would be to by all means try and hold on to your treasured values, but don’t ignore the inevitable consequences of money.
Someone once wrote that professionalism was like being pregnant; either you were or you weren’t. There is no half-way house. So grasp that reality rugby, and stop blaming football for getting you pregnant.