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.

 

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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”

Football and Rugby crowds

 

Why do you think a rugby crowd is so different from a football crowd? Even if it isn’t that different in demographics and profile, the spectator experience certainly is.

 

Basically, football fans are not trusted not to monster each other. So we’re all on CCTV in and around the ground, and the whole area around the ground is treated as a potential problem waiting to happen. Riot police and vans are everywhere. Pubs often have ‘no football colours’ statements on their doors, but none have ‘no rugby colours’. We all think we know why.

 

A friend was telling me of how 81,000 England and Australian fans co-existed peacefully at Twickenham in November, even though many were “clearly seven sheets to the wind”.

 

So, the contrast between the two sports is really remarkable. Football fans are treated like dangerous wild beasts, rugby crowds are treated like grown-ups. Although there is very little trouble at football games these days, it feels as though this is simply because of how heavily it is policed. If football supporters could be trusted to behave decently, segregation would not exist, but at no game of any size would fans not be kept apart. We are never trusted to stand shoulder to shoulder until you get down to the fifth and sixth tiers. In a supposedly civilised land, that’s simply incredible.

 

Of course, in football, there is a long history of violence between fans. It’s often said that rugby union is a middle-class sport and that this explains why people behave better, but I don’t believe this is true, not least because we all know a few middle-class people who are absolute rotters and behave terribly. It’s also an insult to the vast majority of decent working-class football fans who wouldn’t dream of putting a brick in someone’s face. And also, while there are some very middle-class people at the rugby – what I would call the red trouser brigade – mostly it isn’t that sort, it’s just regular people. The peaceful posho element is very overstated, as is the violent working class. I don’t believe we’re all that different.

 

It’s sometimes said that the aggressive on-pitch mano-a-mano nature of rugby somehow dissolves the urge for violence or aggression in the spectators. This seems a bit far-fetched as football is physical, athletic and can be aggressive too.

 

Others have speculated that footballers set a bad example by swearing at refs and generally throwing strops and trying to cheat all the time. That this facilitates and normalises similar behaviour amongst some fans, as players and crowd get caught into a self-feeding emotional loop. That, I feel, is getting closer to one of the core issues. Because it must largely be down to history and expectation. The totally different crowd experiences must be as a result of copying behavioural expectations and standards.

 

Maybe football is trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of negativity and aggression, in the same way rugby is trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of positivism and respect. It is not explainable in any other way as to why we’ve ended up with two popular sports being so divergent. I look forward to the day being in a football crowd is as enjoyable as being in a rugby crowd, and when going to and from a big game doesn’t involve skirting around metal barriers and being herded by riot police. But I’ll be honest with you, I’m not holding my breath

 

Hats off to the Aussies….

 

Yes, hats off to the Aussies….

 

Rugby, as evidenced by many a hidden vote in a transparent process, is fond of its decidedly old-school systems and hierarchy.

 

But if the appointment of Raelene Castle as the Australian Rugby Union’s new CEO was considered ground-braking, the ARU’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) was little short of revolutionary.

 

 

 

In a cycle during which the RFU dispensed with irrelevant pleasantries such as continuing to reward handsomely those females who chose to represent the RFU with such pride, the ARU have taken a more liberal economic stance, opting for matching base pay rates for their male and female athletes and installing pregnancy policies for their females as well.

 

As Ms. Castle identified during the opening stage of her tenure, the “…..female market is really hot” and currently and women’s  rugby is hard to ignore. The skill, fitness, intensity and rugby intelligence of the current female elite are light years ahead of where they were a decade ago. The last women’s World Cup was a pleasure to watch.

 

 

 

In a time when so much cash goes to so few players playing so many games. It’s refreshing to see a national union opening a wider embrace to hard-training elite athletes serving the sport.

 

Rugby must continue living on the brink if it is to move forward

 

Professional rugby union is operating on the brink, with spiralling player wages leading to smaller squads and everyone from World Rugby to Ross Moriarty being accused of greed as they look to maximise income. Sponsorship revenues continue to fall, and doubts persist over whether the next television deal will be worth the same as the last one. But can everyone stop being so miserable?

 

Rugby has thrived from living on the edge. It has never felt secure, from the days when Sir John Hall’s money drove Newcastle Falcons to the title to Wasps moving NFL-style to Coventry — but look how far the sport has come over the past two decades. The money, the attendances and the global interest in the game have all grown massively since the mid-1990s. We live in a capitalist society and if rugby is to keep growing at that pace then on the brink is exactly where we need to be, because that is what drives things forward.

 

 

 

The biggest danger is that ambition overrules business sense — exhibit A: London Welsh — but that is not unique to sport. In normal industry, businesses fail every day and those closures offer valuable lessons to others. Only the strongest survive. We have seen that in rugby too. Exeter Chiefs came up to the Aviva Premiership with a solid business model and grew to become English champions. London Welsh, in contrast, had a plan that could have been sketched on the back of a beer mat and, to the surprise of nobody, they collapsed as a professional entity.

 

Sport is different to normal industry, though, because the clubs tend to be part of the fabric of a community into which people have invested money and emotion. Therefore, there are special controls, such as the salary cap and safety nets because we are loath to let certain clubs fail. Just like the government did with RBS, the Welsh Rugby Union could not let the Dragons go out of business, so stepped in to save them.

 

The Dragons have signed Moriarty from Gloucester on a £1 million, two-year contract. The player stood accused of greed, even though he had to move to a Welsh region to play international rugby. Is it his fault that he was offered a chance to become the highest-paid player in Wales? No. It is not greed. It is market forces.

 

Moriarty moved for international rugby, not for the money. Neither George Ford nor Owen Farrell went chasing the cash when signing their latest contracts. Ford moved to Leicester Tigers and Farrell stayed at Saracens because they felt it was best for their careers. Can the Dragons afford Moriarty and George North? Only they know but if the region is to grow then they need to invest, they need to take calculated risks.

 

Rugby is like its own mini global economy. Premiership clubs want to be able to run their own affairs and their Brexit moment was to seize control of the European competitions. Having done so, things have not been as rosy as was promised during the campaign. Sound familiar?

 

There are strong arguments on both sides of the Channel that there are too many foreign players in English and French club rugby — but Polynesians represent cheap labour coming into a rich market. An English player, with an agent working on their behalf, will cost more than a Samoan player of the same ability.

 

The salary cap in the Premiership is, depending which end of the table your club sit, either an anti-competitive policy or an anti-monopoly policy. It is designed to act as a handbrake on the natural market forces. The league has to operate as a cartel because even the richest clubs would acknowledge that they need opponents to play — there is no point driving all rivals out of business. I would like to see a minimum squad size introduced because that would slow the rise in player salaries.

 

The ring-fencing argument would work against the capitalist idea of risk-taking and some of the clubs who have been down argue it was the best thing that could have happened to them. Northampton Saints and Harlequins came back to win the league. Would they have done so had relegation not forced them to redraw their business models? I doubt it.

 

The most important word in rugby economics is “yield”. Exeter posted a £1 million profit and immediately fans asked the club to reduce ticket prices and the cost of a pint. But Tony Rowe, the chief executive, wants that money to help grow the club from being English to European champions.

 

Wasps moved to Coventry because they thought that it was the best place to increase their yield and make the club sustainable.

 

The RFU’s ticket prices are extortionate for the average person and Eddie Jones was even asked to justify whether England’s display against Argentina offered value for money to supporters who had paid more than £100. And yet the stadium was sold out. The RFU is not greedy. It is trying to find the balance where it can make the most money to grow the game, while also attracting people through the turnstiles.

 

There is talk that Premiership clubs cannot afford the wages being paid. They can at the moment and clubs are trying to strike the right balance between a squad big enough to cope with the attrition rate and one good enough to win a trophy.

 

If squads became so stretched that Premiership games had to be postponed, that would force a rethink, tell us the balance was wrong and lead to a reduction in wages.

 

We are living on the edge in rugby, we have been since the game went professional and it has served us pretty well. It will continue to do so providing that the owners remain responsible custodians of their clubs.