Watch Out – The Americans are coming!

 

A few weeks ago, Twickenham opened its doors to American Football by hosting the NFL “international series” game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Cleveland Browns. It was the fourth NFL game played in London this autumn, with the matches split between the home of English Rugby Union and Wembley. The RFU was no doubt paid a king’s ransom by the NFL for rolling out the red carpet to the American sporting invasion – and let’s hope that it is doing so with its eyes wide open.

 

This so-called international series is part of an NFL strategy to export its code to Europe, not least because the audience figures for the sport in the USA have been declining, and capturing a lucrative new market in Europe is a useful hedge against the dip in popularity on the other side of the Atlantic. The Americans need no lessons in sports marketing from anyone, mainly because they invented it, with major professional sports like American Football in the vanguard. What bodies like the RFU have to recognise, and quickly, is that this colonisation, far from being a friendly partnership, is a serious threat to the health of Rugby Union.

 

The reality is that if an NFL franchise is created in London, or relocates to it, that talented young Rugby Union players – as well as those in rugby league, athletics, and to a lesser extent football – will be at the top of their shopping list. The athletic and physical types required by Rugby Union and American Football are virtually the same, and therefore they will be fishing in the same talent pool. The NFL knows that money talks when it comes to recruitment, and that its vastly superior spending power means that the race to contract the most talented young rugby athletes could leave a country even with England’s playing numbers picked clean.

 

Most fans of our own oval ball code will recognise that stars like Jonny Wilkinson, Jason Robinson and Martin Johnson do not come around every generation, and that they are not easily replaced. The logical extension is that if your tier of elite talent is constantly plundered your sport is in danger of losing its profile and appeal. Players crossing over between Rugby Union and American Football are the exception rather than the rule at the moment. However, the speed with which the transition can take place is evident in the contract secured by the former England Sevens captain, Alex Gray, who secured a two-year contract with the Atlanta Falcons this summer.

 

At the moment there is no player drain, with those leaving to try the American code a mere trickle. Set against that we know that the financial clout of the national bodies in Rugby Union – with the RFU the wealthiest – or clubs with multimillionaire backers, are not in the same league as an organisation like the NFL. That is why if the NFL decided to target a goal-kicker of the calibre of Owen Farrell for a new London franchise, or to sign Billy Vunipola as a linebacker, the money on offer would dwarf their Rugby Union earnings.

 

The average NFL squad player earnings are £1.44 million – which is about half a million more than Dan Carter earns in France. However, the money that star players earn is staggering, with the brilliant New England Patriots quarter-back, Tom Brady, signing a two-year deal worth £31.2 million. However, it is more likely that the NFL will target promising Rugby Union players much earlier so that their learning curve in the new sport is gradual rather than steep – and, again, the contracts would be far more lucrative than anything Rugby Union can pay.

 

If this talk of an American Football invasion sounds fanciful, it is worth considering why Tottenham have installed a revolutionary retractable second pitch in their new showpiece stadium to replace White Hart Lane. That second pitch has NFL specified dimensions and turf surface, and is kept under the Spurs pitch and then raised to replace it using sophisticated hydraulic technology. This has been done as part of Tottenham signing a deal with the NFL to play two games a season on it from 2018-19. That sort of investment does not happen by accident, and nor does the number of games the NFL are playing on this side of the Atlantic.

 

 

 

The battle for hearts, minds and playing talents between Rugby Union and American Football may be in its infancy in this country, but it has started – and having the enemy inside your gates may not be the RFU’s best strategy.

 

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Does Test Rugby need stricter rules?

Evidently Rhys Webb wants to have his Welsh cake and eat it. The Ospreys and Lions scrum-half signed for Toulon earlier this month, days before the Welsh Rugby Union announced a change to its policy governing players outside the country, entrapping the 28-year old.
The new rules outline that players moving to England or France from next season would only be considered by the Wales head coach if they had reached the 60-cap threshold. As Webb is on 28, he has no chance of reaching that by next September, even with all the extra internationals Wales are fond of arranging.
Webb’s response was to say that when he agreed to join Toulon – he cannot sign a contract with the French club until January, only a pre-agreement – he did not know the full implications regarding his international career. The Wales head coach, Warren Gatland, however, said he had warned him about the potential policy change.

Webb is a player Gatland will not want to be without from next season, one year away from the World Cup. He is Wales’s first-choice scrum-half by some distance and is at the peak of a career which has been affected by injuries. With the sport taking an increasing toll on players, Toulon’s offer was one he felt he could not risk turning down.
By moving to France, he was jeopardising his international career anyway. Under the old policy, from the 2019-20 season which takes in the World Cup, Gatland would only have been able to select two wildcards in his squad, that is players based outside the country who had turned down the offer of a contract with one of Wales’s four regions.
It was because Gatland faced being without a number of senior players that the Welsh Rugby Union and the regions came up with another formula. The regions argued for 70 caps but, under Gatland’s prompting, settled on 60, the number adopted by Australia before the last World Cup.
New Zealand and Argentina do not consider any player for international rugby who is not based in the country, Ireland tend not to look beyond their own border and England will only consider exiles under exceptional circumstances: when Chris Ashton left Saracens for Toulon in the summer he knew that he was putting his Test career in limbo at best.
If it is hard on Webb, as it would be on another Lion, Ross Moriarty, if he signed a new contract with Gloucester, Wales have to keep making a stand in an attempt to galvanise the regional game which, the Scarlets aside, remains in a depressed state. The alternative is to disband the regions, move back to club rugby in the form of a semi-professional Premiership and shoo their leading players to clubs in France and England.
It is not only a Welsh problem. The top leagues in France and England enjoy a substantial turnover, boosted by the largesse of owners, even if few of them make a profit. Their resources are such that they are able to attract leading players from the southern hemisphere in large numbers, and not just those looking for a pension at the end of their careers. Even New Zealand, where the lure of the national jersey is powerful, are losing players like Aaron Cruden, Malakai Fekitoa and Charles Piutau who have years left in them.
They may not have been first-choice All Blacks, but as the Lions found when touring South Africa in 2009 and Australia in 2013, when countries lose players who are second or third in line it weakens the foundations of their professional game. The response of a number of English clubs to injury problems in the last month has been to sign players from Australia, South Africa and the Pacific Islands.
It has consequences for international rugby, as has been seen in the Rugby Championship. In every major rugby country in the world, the primacy of international rugby is not disputed, save two: England and France where the professional club game is vibrant and owners like Toulon’s Mourad Boudjellal can afford to offer players contracts that set them up financially and soften the impact of a loss of Test status.

 

England are the world’s richest union but, along with France, it has the most mouths to feed. It has pursued a singular policy as it increases its revenues and continues to refurbish Twickenham, refusing to consider arguments from the southern hemisphere that there should be revenue-sharing among tier one nations to ensure that countries there and in Europe are better able to hold on to players and so pay more than lip service to the primacy of international rugby.
The RFU argues that the money it earns is poured back into the English game and that to give some up would hit the grassroots. But, and Bernard Laporte, the president of the French Rugby Federation has realised this, if Test rugby becomes weakened and less of an allure there is a threat to income anyway. And what is the investment in age-group rugby worth if players are lost to the system because club places are blocked by recruits who are not qualified to play for England?
There are too many ‘foreign’ players in France and the Premiership has, at least, reached saturation point. Rugby does not have the broad appeal of football and cannot afford the likes of South Africa and Australia becoming unexceptional. Or Wales again, which is why there have to be consequences for the likes of Webb.