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.