Rugby’s Summer becomes the new Winter

Theresa May would have felt right at home at Twickenham. Even a workable Brexit deal sometimes feels more achievable than locating the solution to rugby union’s unfeasibly tight fixture calendar. For a quarter of a century, if not longer, the sport has been trying to squeeze a globally-accepted quart into a disputed pint pot and the eureka moment has yet to materialise.
We still live in an age where the faintest of tweaks, largely irrelevant in the wider scheme of things, are hailed as triumphant advances. No English player, for example, will be permitted in future to be involved in more than 35 matches per year or start more than 30 games a season, down from 32. Hold those exultant trumpets: in the southern hemisphere and Ireland many top players already play a third fewer games. The off-season? Blink and you’ll miss it from a fan’s perspective. Summer is about to become the new winter, with the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 2021 concluding on the first weekend in August. The following domestic season is due to start on 12 September. Admittedly, the English players on the Lions tour will have a mandatory 10 weeks off but, even so, a dubious new first awaits. For the first time competitive pro games involving English players or teams will take place in every single month of the calendar year.
There will now be only two Augusts in the next five summers – 2020 and 2022 – when there will be no meaningful rugby played. The official disclaimer is that no individual will be playing rugby for 11 months of the year. But the inescapable truth is that the calendar is expanding at precisely the moment all sides accept that playing the sport has never been more physically demanding. Stick that slogan on the side of a bus.
No one yet knows how ruinous the recurring failure to embrace a less is more approach will ultimately prove. There are already some unhealthy side-effects. Take the Lions, the most universally loved and commercially vibrant team in the game. Their next tour is already being compromised like never before: it will last five weeks and incorporate eight games.
For the moment the players – aka the meat in the sandwich – appear to have mostly been placated and strike action is not on the horizon. Given the increasing uncertainty surrounding the professional game’s finances, at home and abroad, many have clearly concluded they have little choice but to suck it up, trusting those in authority to crack down hard on clubs who fail to grant their players the enforced rest – a five-week summer break plus the odd fallow week during the season – to which they are now entitled. If there is a silver lining to the new-age schedule it is that enlightened player management and mental wellbeing support will have to be taken ever more seriously.
In the meantime, take a step back and ask yourself three questions. Does an 11-month season feel like progress? Does summer rugby union in England – rubbing shoulders in June with football World Cups, Test cricket, Royal Ascot, Wimbledon and rugby league – float your pedalo? And will these announcements be hailed in 10 years’ time as the moment professional rugby union saw the light? Only incurable optimists and gluttons for punishment will be answering yes to all three.

Advertisements

The Autumn Window is not entirely open

Rugby’s autumn internationals will be ready to rumble in a couple of weeks. England have a huge game against South Africa at Twickenham, Wales meet Scotland in Cardiff and Ireland face Italy in Chicago. These are big occasions with significant revenues. It is strange, then, that no one in charge of selling tickets, hospitality packages or television subscriptions has added a vital asterisk: two thirds of the competing countries will be fielding weakened teams.
Many people will have shelled out for a Twickenham seat – costing up to £132. Can the Boks’ key catalysts, the Wasps full-back Willie le Roux and Sale’s scrum-half Faf de Klerk, unpick the English defence again? We will never know, because neither man is permitted to play. The date of the game is outside World Rugby’s official window which means no Premiership-based player will be released, despite there being no league games scheduled that day.
There will also be no shortage of other influential absentees. Gloucester’s Franco Mostert, Wasps’ Nizaam Carr and Bath’s Francois Louw will be similarly unavailable to South Africa while Italy cannot field Jake Polledri, their impressive young Gloucester-based back-row, or Exeter’s Michele Campagnaro. Wales must do without their English contingent of Liam Williams, Dan Biggar, Tomas Francis Taulupe Faletau, Jamie Roberts, Luke Charteris and Josh Adams. Scotland’s Sean Maitland and Byron McGuigan, of Saracens and Sale respectively, further extend the list.
Does this really matter? There will, after all, still be plenty of other grateful players keen to take their places and win a cap. The Tests will still happen, the same badge-clutching anthems will be played. Premiership Rugby is obliged to release its players for only a certain number of weeks per year and all involved – hey presto! – will be available for international duty again the following week.
A shrug of the shoulders, however, misses the broader point. The vexed relationship between club and country remains rugby’s running sore, at the heart of the endless power struggle between the various factions involved. If South Africa cannot put out their strongest side for one of the biggest games of the year, then surely that cheapens the whole sport? If England win well, does that mean Eddie Jones’s side are back on track or simply that they took advantage of weakened opposition? If it is obviously the latter, everyone loses out.
Of course, there is the weighty counter argument that Test matches should not be scheduled outside the window anyway. The accusation, not without foundation, is that these games exist only for financial rather than sporting reasons, that the unions involved care little for the clubs’ interests and are happy to ride roughshod over the domestic schedule. Twenty-three years after the game went professional the whole self-harming debate rages on. World Rugby has confirmed that it is looking to jazz up the July and November windows by making the matches collectively more meaningful; the Rugby Football Union and the English clubs are set to confirm soon what their vision for the newly structured calendar from 2020 looks like.
What both sides are overlooking in all this are the players: where is the schedule that allows Le Roux, say, to display his brilliance for both club and country and enjoy sufficient rest to ensure the magic keeps happening for years to come? The abrupt departure of Joe Marler from the Test scene may or may not have been a symptom of burnout – the Harlequins prop is a devoted family man – but it is obvious that, physically and mentally, the game is accelerating towards a place where it will no longer soon be practicable or healthy for one individual to play upwards of 30 games – soon enough that might be 20 – in a calendar year.
It is in everyone’s interests to sit down together and reassess. Tests absolutely have to matter, clubs need their own uninterrupted space and the players should be consulted more. Is it, in the end, really that complicated?

Is it so bad if Rugby turns into Football?

The new rugby season is a month old, but this is my first blog of the season, so let’s ride my hobby-horse of how rugby is coming to resemble football.
It is because the cry, so often last season, was that rugby was becoming football. Coaches being sacked, the developing transfer market, players talking back to referees, players owning Louis Vuitton manbags. We are all doomed. What has happened to the game? You have heard it all. You know the script.
My continuing message is that this is inevitable. Yes, rugby is following football. Enjoy it. It could be one hell of a ride.
Peter Kenyon was chief executive of Manchester United and then Chelsea and the very reason that he has got into rugby was because he recognised the pattern. “What I saw was a lot of the trends that were starting to come into rugby: player movement, foreign ownership, TV and media rights, reorganisation of the competitions,” he said in a Times interview. “It all resonated with where football had been 20 to 25 years ago. The correlation was really strong.”
Kenyon’s main point is that club rugby is under commercialised. “Rugby went professional and not a lot changed,” he said. “They got full-time salaries, but the environment didn’t change, the sponsorship and TV did not change. The game format did not change. All that happened was the clubs were saddled with huge extra cost.”
I agree. The Premiership, in particular, is a great product but still too much of a hidden secret. Crowds and TV audiences only creep up incrementally. Saracens should be a massive national brand rather than a quiet success story at the foot of the A1.
It has been compared to NFL in the late Seventies: underdeveloped, uncommercial. That is good because what if it could follow the NFL route? Kenyon believes that it can follow in football’s direction: “I think it is poised for the next change. The athletes are serious athletes. The game is well formatted, it’s a really good TV watch. You can have that next lift now.”
There is an occasional feeling around rugby that the good old game is being forced reluctantly into a modern world that looks like football. To hell with that, it is just part of the deal — at least that is Kenyon’s take on a lot of it.
Is a looser player transfer market on the horizon? “For sure. Those shifts — once they start, they just happen.” The rising power of the club game? “Club rugby will become stronger, which is good, and it’s not necessarily at the expense of the international game.” Job security for coaches plummeting as impatient owners search for the winning formula? “Yes, we are all in this world of immediate success, pressure to perform.”
In summary, professionalism brings money that brings conflict. “Yes, that’s the reality. Over the next ten to 15 years, there’s going to be a lot of money.”
Professionalism brings a different type of personality to the game. Again, irreversible, though, in this case, lamentable.
“Some of the player trends are going the same way [as football],” Kenyon says. “That is inevitable. If you are going professional or in an academy from when you are 16 or 18, you get cocooned. Your education is not as wide. You lose that roundness, you lose that sense of reality with the rest of the world.”
Rugby does sometimes teeter dangerously into smugness. “The attitude of: ‘We are the best’ is absolutely wrong,” Kenyon says. He does see rugby’s values being retained: “It is discipline, it is respect; it is those things.”
Clearly rugby has a job to do to retain that. The England football team in Russia showed that professional athletes can emerge from their cocoons and have their followers proud of who they are as well as how they play. As we head to next year’s rugby World Cup, the England team would do well to heed the precedent.
If they do and, better still, if they do well at the World Cup, maybe they can help to inspire the next step change. Kenyon equates rugby to football pre-1992: most owners were wealthy local businessmen, then Gazza cried, Sky TV arrived, and the Premier League was formed — the game exploded.
Just because rugby is where football was then does not necessarily mean that it will follow. Kenyon sees foreign ownership coming into rugby clubs. I am not so sure; I see those local owners still footing a very expensive bill.

Mallinder’s Northampton downfall has parallels with Wenger at Arsenal

Longevity has come up short. The announcement that Arsène Wenger would leave Arsenal meant this season was the last for the longest-serving club heads in football and rugby’s premierships.
Similar to Wenger at Arsenal, Jim Mallinder at Northampton had gone from managing the champions to missing out on a place in the top four for two successive seasons, and the highly likely prospect of a third forced the Saints to sack him in December, 10 years after he was appointed their director of rugby.
If Arsenal’s decline under Wenger was gradual at first before gathering momentum, Northampton were Premiership champions in 2014 having reached their first final the year before. After wobbling for one season, they lost their balance and their struggles in the Premiership were compounded by heavy defeats in Europe: they have conceded 438 points in the Champions Cup in their last 12 group matches, an average of more than 36.

Success in football is often fashioned by finance, the richest rising to the top, although Leicester City were an exception two years ago. Wenger’s misfortune was that the £450m investment by the Arsenal absentee owner, Stan Kroenke, went into the bank accounts of shareholders, not the club’s, but the salary cap in the Premiership provides a more level field, even if it allows for a couple of marquee signings.
Northampton, like Arsenal, are trying to run a model business, investing in the playing side what they earn rather than relying on a backer. The same applies to Harlequins, who recently announced that John Kingston would stand down as Director of Rugby at the end of the campaign, ending a 17-year association with the club, most of which was spent as a coach. Another era is coming to an end.
There have been concerns that rugby union is resembling football, hiring one year and firing the next, but the top four clubs in the Premiership – Exeter, Saracens, Wasps and Newcastle – are models of stability having appointed their head coaches/directors of rugby in 2009, 2011, 2011 and 2012 respectively. Beneath them, only Sale in seventh match that, with Steve Diamond taking over in 2012.
Successful coaches and managers rarely get sacked, unless they work for Chelsea, but what defines success? Would Sale finishing sixth be as notable an achievement as Saracens regaining the title? Wenger was ridiculed for turning Arsenal from a side that competed for, and won, the title to a side content to finish in the top four, which they did for his first 20 years in charge.
By the standards of history, he was mightily successful but, judged by what he had previously achieved, he was failing – as was Mallinder at Northampton – and had to be shoved out in a downfall reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s when those she felt owed her loyalty pointed out the blindingly obvious.
Mallinder and Wenger largely relied on the same group of coaches during their reigns and became tactically stale. Alex King was brought in to rejuvenate the Saints’ attack but was cast out when the slump started. Continued success comes down to the art of regeneration, something Sir Alex Ferguson was a master of. While he remained in control at Manchester United, he regularly changed his second-in-command, bringing in a new voice as well as fresh ideas, a silversmith like no other.
Warren Gatland will have been Wales’ head coach for 12 years when he leaves the position after their involvement in next year’s World Cup ends. He has kept his management team intact throughout, tweaked only in the two years he was on sabbatical with the Lions. They last won the Six Nations title in 2013 and, like Northampton, found that tactics that delivered titles once had dated.

Wales are in a far healthier position than they were for most of the 20 years before Gatland took over, when coaches entered the Arms Park through a revolving door, and he regularly refreshes his squad, afraid to drop no one. Whoever takes over will, like Chris Boyd at Franklin’s Gardens in the summer, face a rebuilding job. A number of players who have made their mark with the Lions as well as Wales will not be around for the 2023 World Cup and there will be a stylistic shift.
New Zealand’s Steve Hansen is preparing for his fourth World Cup with the All Blacks, and second in charge, but the management team is markedly different to the one he joined in 2004. The All Blacks through the years have been not only been receptive to new ideas but pioneering, one of the few to look at the positive possibilities of law changes.
There was a time when New Zealand coaches had to sneak back home after failing to win the World Cup but only defeat to a minnow will sour Hansen’s legacy. Northampton’s supporters never had a chance to say farewell to Mallinder and, while the majority accepted the time for change had arrived, they acknowledged his achievements and viewed his departure with sorrow rather than relief.
It is the opposite with Wenger. The mood before the match at the Emirates Stadium against West Ham, the first after the announcement, was as if a distant cousin had departed rather than a close relative. There were not enough at the ground who could remember that for most of his reign the club had never had it so consistently good. The past is a foreign country; the present tense.

 

Does Club Rugby need to be Marketed better?

Is rugby popular, or not very popular at all? The answer is, perhaps weirdly, both.
When it comes to international rugby, cup finals, or some annual “special” games, it attracts big numbers. 55,000 fans went to Murrayfield to see Saracens beat Clermont in 2017, 74,000 watched Wales beat Scotland, 82,000 watched England beat Wales and 67,000 saw Scotland turn England over. Indeed, pretty much every international game is a sell-out.

But step away from the cup and international arena into the Premiership and it’s usually a different story.
While in 2017 crowds were up by 10% to an average of 13,833, many clubs simply don’t seem to have much pulling power, much of the time. Last year, table-topping Wasps averaged just over 15,000 in the 32,000 capacity Ricoh arena, despite the fact you would be guaranteed to see some good winning rugby. Harlequins hosted Bath at The Stoop in front of a crowd of 7,450. That is less than Notts Count’s average attendance in the fourth tier of English football.
But it is a confused picture, because when Harlequins play the annual December “Big Game” at Twickenham, over 77,000 can turn up. It’s still Premiership rugby, but it’s a special occasion housed at Twickenham and apparently this makes it irresistible.

Small crowds at some of the grounds are obviously due to limited capacity. Exeter sit atop the league with a ground that holds just 12,800. While there’s nothing worse than being in a 35,000-capacity stadium with 25,000 empty seats, a severely restricted capacity could be a self-perpetuating unpopularity. Surely a side like Exeter who are going to finish first could attract a bigger crowd. After all, fans tend to flock to winners.

It would appear there simply isn’t a strong enough club culture to draw sizeable crowds for most league games, even though the quality of these games is not significantly worse entertainment. How to explain London Irish’s average attendance being about 8-10,000 at the 24,0000-capacity Madeiski but 54,000 at Twickenham for the London Double Header?
Football has a tribal loyalty that seems largely missing from rugby. It may or may not mean fans are less blinkered and one-eyed, but it also means ties to the club are perhaps not as strong. Far fewer people turn up to every game out of loyalty, or even out of mere habit.
The reason for modest (if rising) crowds must actually be both cultural and structural. The lesson from the attendance gulf between “special” games and the rest must be that to pull bigger crowds, more games must somehow be made to be special. Indeed, it is essential for this to happen if the Premiership clubs’ finances to improve.

Rugby’s Blame Game

 

As rugby union’s professionalism advances, and the stress on players continues to grow, only a drastic reduction in games for the elite players can avert a car crash of seismic proportions for the sport.

 

 

 

According to an excellent piece of research by player agency Esportif Intelligence, England’s players had played an average of almost 1,100 minutes (13.75 matches) of club rugby each this season before the start of the Six Nations in February

 

Figures for the other home countries were:

 

Ireland 700 minutes (8.75 matches)

 

Wales 850 minutes (10.63 matches)

 

Scotland 660 minutes (8.25 matches)

 

 

 

Even accounting for their grotesquely heavier workload than their Celtic counterparts before the tournament, it is still England’s players who are being called back to the grindstone first.  On the back of a Lions summer, the effect is plain to see as England’s performances flatlined, English clubs flopped in Europe while the Aviva Premiership stagnates.

 

 

 

Radical thinking is required – and required soon – or Ireland, Wales (whose National Dual Contract scheme is only just beginning to bear fruit) and Scotland will continue to punch well above their collective weights when it comes to player numbers and commercial clout.

 

In 1995 the RFU called a moratorium on professionalism. The “old farts” at Twickenham dithered as their amateur game burned. The clubs contracted the players and England have suffered since.  As professionalism advances and the stress on players continue to grow, only a drastic reduction in games for the top players can avert a car crash.

 

 

 

The signs are not good. Ian Ritchie, the man who presided over England’s worst ever World Cup campaign in 2015 as RFU chief executive, but was forgiven as the union wallowed in cash, was recently appointed chairman of Premiership Rugby. By all accounts a lovely bloke and decent administrator, but is he the man to deliver radical change in a sport crying out for alternative thinking? No chance!

 

 

 

The blame game will go on and the players will continue to suffer. But who will be to blame when the wheels really do come off?

 

England’s failure. Blame it on….

After England’s failure at the Six Nations, finishing only above Italy, (at least no-
one has pretended that it was anything but a failure) the knives have all too
predictably been going in all directions. Quite a few have landed in Eddie Jones’ back, but many commentators have looked at the Irish and asked what they are doing that we’re not. The answer for many has been central contracts.

Ireland, Wales and Scotland, who finished first, second and third respectively, all use a form of central contracts. So, do New Zealand, and they’re not a bad team either.

Under the English model, the RFU effectively pays the Premiership clubs to release players called up for the national team under the terms of the Professional Game Agreement, which runs until 2024.
The advantage of central contracts is that it allows unions to control its players’ workloads and grant longer rest periods. While nine of England’s players started their season in the first weekend of September, the majority of Ireland’s contingent enjoyed an extra four weeks off. The England fly-half Owen Farrell has played 1084 minutes for Saracens this season, more than double the 435 minutes his Irish counterpart, Jonnie Sexton, has played for Leinster.
A Lions tour is a special event, but it takes much more out of the player. The last time England lost three in a row in the Six Nations was in 2006, coming after the 2005 New Zealand tour. A coincidence?
Steve Hansen, the New Zealand head coach, claimed that there is a clear difference between the energy levels of the English and Irish players. “They (Ireland) have got central contracting which allows them to maybe have a bit more control over playing time and player welfare than the countries where they don’t have that luxury” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.

But both the RFU and Premiership Rugby are adamant that the introduction of central contracts would be a non-starter, at least in the short term. Exeter Chiefs chairman Tony Rowe poured very cold water over the idea. “The RFU struggle to find the money to pay for the players they use and abuse once a year anyway” he told the Telegraph. “Central Contracts sounds great, but you can’t just cherry-pick the best players. If they want to contract our players, they would need to contract all of them and I would like to see where they are going to get the money for that from”.

But the clubs are losing, collectively, about £30 million a year. If, by some extraordinary coup, the RFU signed up the top 40 English players in the country and paid their wages, they would be saving the clubs about two-thirds of that. The RFU then has control over when and where they play. In theory, it is beautiful.
In practice though, there is a form of central contracting already. The Elite Player Squad (EPS) agreement is a contract between England and the clubs that already deals with player release and with the payment of around £2000,000 per player per year so the RFU can have some control over these lucky assets.

The first EPS agreement did not allow for player release from the clubs in the fallow weeks of the Six Nations. Now, there is also a release week before international campaigns, and an enforced break afterwards. This is central contracting lite. If England and the RFU want further control over the players then, when the next EPS contract is being negotiated, to start in 20121, the RFU should pay considerably more than £200,000 per player, and effectively buy them out of a few more club games a year. The clubs may hate losing their players, but they love the cash for which they get recompensed.

If the RFU wants to press further, it would have to pay for it. You want Daly at No. 15 for Wasps? Then pay Wasps to play him there for, say, four games a season.
There are limits though. England may want to be more Irish and completely buy up the players, but the clubs wouldn’t give it a sniff. Whoever controls the players controls the game.

Central contracting would also interfere with the sporting integrity of the Aviva Premiership. If the RFU pays the players direct, then some clubs would get international players for free, others wouldn’t. The Premiership is already lopsided enough, with Harlequins, for instance, being required to play Newcastle Falcons during the Six Nations, and therefore without a number of their best players. Central contacts would leave Quins in even less control of their assets. If the RFU wants ultimate, complete, Ireland-level control, it would have to buy up the Premiership.

As Tony Rowe would put it: “Show us your money”