Too much of a Good Thing?

Is it just us, or is there just a little too much rugby at the moment? You couldn’t fault the World Cup or the action, but to get into the European Cup two weeks later feels just a little bit more of a burden than it should do.
And then, having forgotten about it because of the aforementioned competition, to be reminded that the club season this year still has nearly eight months to run also felt a bit………
The European Cup, once such a highlight for the northern club calendar, seems especially wedged in. It’s hard to justify the tournament being one of ultimate prestige for Europe when a sprinkling of the star players are still on holiday.
The Six Nations is likely to be dogged by fatigue and injury, especially from England and Wales respectively, while the hole into which Saracens have dug themselves is all the more deep for it being a post-World Cup year. It’s poor form to breach the salary cap, but if ever there was a season in which one could empathise, this coming one would be it.
European players who went to the World Cup will have, by the time the season ends in July, been at it for 12 months – a few will have had a four-week break, but not many. That’s an impossible workload for anybody.
The Premiership may be the only top-level tournament in the history of sport to have the star players playing in fewer than half of the fixtures by the time of its drawn-out end. The European Cup looks set, this season once again, to be a fiefdom of Irish and one or two expensively assembled French teams.
Few fans may be too happy about the CVC salami-style takeover of the game but, if they are to snap up all the tournaments one-by-one, there could be a tremendous service rendered: bring pressure to bear on the factions who run tournaments and get them to sort out a sensible calendar with a sensible workload for players and fans. Right now, even for the hardiest fan, it all seems a little too much.
All change in England
If ever you needed to know how rugby has changed in England over the past 20 years, just look at the Premiership table. The bottom quintet of Leicester, Bath, Quins, Wasps and Saracens were five of the top six of the 1999 Allied Dunbar Premiership – the first four of those have been ever-presents at the pinnacle of English rugby for decades.
This year it looks a real risk for Leicester especially, as Saracens’ draconian points penalty is not an insurmountable gap.
A real risk for a team that, 20 years ago, was on its way to its second championship in a row. But should the Tigers’ woes continue, expect the arguments for ring-fencing to pop up sooner, rather than later.

Saracens in the Dock

Just imagine for a moment what the last 10 days have been like if you are one of Saracen’s England players…You lose a World Cup Final, have to endure a long, tedious flight back to England, where, instead of an open-topped bus parade through London, you are met with the news that your club has been docked 35 points and fined £5.3m. Welcome home…

It says much for the talent within the club that it could go to a predictably hostile place like Gloucester’s Kingsholm, still bereft of their England players, and dominate a side who were in the Premiership play-offs last season, winning 21-12.
Gloucester’s head coach Johan Ackermann accepted that defeat was justified, saying “They have a DNA that works for them and they were better than us despite them having to play under considerable pressure.”

Every time Saracens, or any club, produce an England player, they have to share the proceeds from Twickenham with all the other clubs. Of the money paid for every player produced (about £180k), only a third, £60k, finds its way to the club.
Of the remaining £120k, they can only add £80k to the salary cap in order to pay the players they have to bring in to cover their international absentees.
This means that if they lose say six players to the England squad the maximum salary cap allowances the club can claim is £80k of the £180k. This leaves Saracens not only with the disadvantage of losing their best players for Premiership matches but the inability to sign players of a similar high quality because of the inadequacy of the allowance.
So, what is the point of developing England players?

Harlequins’ ex-England captain Chris Robshaw claimed that “We’re a sport that claims to be whiter than white, and we always look down on football, but we are like everyone else.” Welcome to the real world of professional sport Chris.
A number of commentators have labelled the Saracens hoo-haa as rugby union’s biggest scandal since the “Bloodgate” one of 10 years ago, which involved the cutting of mouths, bogus blood capsules, the near ruination of the careers of two medical staff, long bans and a £260,000 fine. And as it happens Harlequins were the club involved. Saracens’ fine in effect means what the legal beaks saw as essentially culpable administrative errors is seen as 20 times more serious than Bloodgate.

The Saracens salary cap has been discussed in great detail in the sporting pages-it was getting more coverage than the usual football speculation that dominates the back pages.
It does beggar belief that Saracens, if they believed they had found a legitimate loophole, didn’t check it with Premiership Rugby’s financial regulators step by step. Or did they think themselves so clever they thought either it didn’t matter, or they could keep the scheme secret.
There is also a déjà vu element to all this Half a century ago when every player was officially amateur and therefore “equal”, boot money and the infamous brown envelopes started coming into the game. ; rent -free houses for the lads, jobs in the City conjured up for those lacking even a maths O level.
Then came the brave new world of professionalism and eventually the adoption of salary caps so that every team, theoretically, starts equal. Except equality is complete anathema to rugby -and indeed many sports. Sport is largely about not being equal. Being bigger, faster, better, stronger, more successful and better rewarded than anybody else. That’s in rugby’s DNA and no fine or points drop will change that.
Can I finish with a little prediction: Once the dust settles around Allianz Park, and new, much tougher guidelines are agreed by Premiership Rugby, it will take but a nanosecond before somebody works out afresh how to beat the system.

The Championship Starts

Greene King Championship

London Scottish (13) v Newcastle Falcons (17)
The Athletic Ground
Saturday October 12,2019
The 2019/20 Greene King Championship season kicked off this weekend, though you would have been forgiven for not noticing. Probably something to do with a World Cup taking place on the other side of the world.

Nevertheless, over a thousand people turned out in the pouring rain at The Athletic Ground in Richmond to watch London Scottish open their season against Newcastle Falcons. Relegated last season, the Falcons are clear favourites to regain their place in the Premiership.
Newcastle got their Championship campaign off to a winning start, but it was a far from the dominant display expected of the relegated side. They owed what dominance they had to their veteran ex-England man Toby Flood, who was named man-of-the match. He used his nous and kicking abilities to keep Scottish pinned in their half in the atrocious conditions for much of the game, as well as landing two conversions and a penalty.

“Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.” Benjamin Disraeli was writing about the rich and the poor, but his words could also apply to the gulf that has grown between the Premiership and the Championship.
The Athletic round, a facility that looks pretty much as it did in the days before rugby union went open, a refuge for fans rather than corporates with the game itself the draw.

Has there ever been a greater contrast between two clubs in the second tier of English club rugby? In the one corner stood Newcastle Falcons, armed with a fully professional squad and a management team high on international experience. In the other was London Scottish, a club made up of players who were mainly part-time. Newcastle can look forward to an income of between £6m and £8m next season, assuming they return to the big time, on top of the money they will receive from CVC as part of the private equity company’s 27% stake in the Premiership. The Exiles, in contrast, just have the annual £570,000 the Rugby Football Union pays to a Championship club.
Do Scottish aim for a return to the Championship, or do they remain at the level below, serving the community and providing rugby for players no matter how good they are? Twenty years ago the professional arm of London Scottish, , and that of Richmond (with whom they ground-share) was taken over by London Irish and they had to start again at the bottom of the league pyramid..
The Premiership clubs want the topflight to be increased to 13 clubs, the number who will receive the CVC lump sum. Some want promotion and relegation to be suspended because of the financial divide between the two divisions, while others are open to the idea of a play-off.
There are few clubs in the Championship with ambitions of emulating Exeter. It would cost them too much, both up front and down the line, as the examples of Rotherham and London Welsh show.

Ealing Trailfinders and Cornish Pirates, who are due to move into their new stadium next season, are exceptions, but the cost of membership of the Premiership will only keep going up.

it raises an urgent question: what exactly is the Championship’s raison d’etre?
There are all sorts of issues for players operating beneath the Premiership: poor salaries, insufficient medical insurance, no union assistance in negotiating fairer contracts. Several clubs are creaking.
Something has to give. While the Premiership salary cap has risen – the base level is £6.5m per club with an allowance for two extra “marquee” players on top – Championship clubs receive £530,000 in central funding per annum. A fully-professional squad of 35 pro players at a basic £30,000 apiece – not enough to buy an open-air potting shed in Richmond – costs double that.
If the whole league goes semi-pro will the gap with the Premiership become too cavernous? Might it lead to a closed shop with no promotion or relegation?

Nobody, least of all the RFU, seems to know

Premiership Rugby Cup

There is a small matter of a World Cup taking place at the moment. It kicked off last Friday (September 20) and will dominate coverage of the sport for the next six weeks.

As a consequence, the English domestic season, which normally starts at the beginning of September, was put back. The Gallagher Premiership has to wait until mid-October, but the 19/20 season saw daylight this weekend with the start of the Premiership Rugby Cup. First up was Harlequins against Bristol Bears at the Stoop on Friday evening. The attendance was a very reasonable 9051 – I was the “1”.
(incidentally, it will be exactly nine months until the English domestic season reaches a climax with the Premiership Final in mid-summer)

This will actually be the 48th season of England’s national rugby union competition, but only the second under the “Premiership Rugby Cup” banner. Previously it was known as the Anglo-Welsh Cup (which had been running since 2005, when the Welsh regions joined the then English-only Powergen Cup), but at the end of the 2017/18 season the Welsh regions withdrew. It is now a knockout competition for Premiership rugby teams.

There is no stipulation on player selection, though the cup is seen by many clubs as a development competition for younger players. However, this year, with the first four rounds taking place while the World Cup is on, it takes-on more of a pre-season preparation flavour. Yet the Quins team on Friday night had no Chris Robshaw, no Mike Brown, no Marcus Smith, though there were a smattering of recognizable names such as Joe Marchant and James Chisholm.

Full-back Aaron Morris scored two tries as Quins beat Bristol Bears 24-12. After Brett Herron had opened the scoring with an early penalty, the two efforts from Morris helped the hosts go 17-0 up before Tom Pincus replied just before the break with a try that went unconverted. Charlie Mulchrone added Quins’ third try in the 77th minute, with Mat Protheroe registering the visitors’ second moments later.
In truth it was an error-ridden match. Bristol’s errors began from the kick-off when Joe Batley fumbled, and Bristol coach Pat Lam lamented the number of errors that had cost his side tries. A try from either side in the last five minutes did little to enliven a dire second half, not helped by the inevitable deluge of substitutes.

Rugby’s heavyweights ensure World Cup will garner Japan only fleeting prestige

Rugby union is turning Japanese, but not for long. Once the World Cup is presented in Yokohama on 2 November and the bunting is swept up the hosts, like the other tier-two and -three nations making up the numbers, will slip back into relative obscurity for the next four years.
Some will emerge briefly for a friendly against a largely second-string team from the Six Nations or Rugby Championship, but otherwise they will wallow in the lowlands of barely reported tournaments, no closer to clenching the World Cup than when the tournament was first staged 32 years ago.
That threatened to change when World Rugby this year published its plans for a Nations League, a new tournament it hoped to run from 2022, which would have given countries outside the top 10 a route to the sport’s two main annual competitions, the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship.
World Rugby is the sport’s governing body, but its executives are not allowed to lead, and it has become like the United Nations, handicapped by the veto held by the major players. Twenty-four years after the sport went open, one of the biggest decisions it had been presented with was decided by a closed cabal, the Six Nations. Like the four unions in the Rugby Championship, all of them had to agree for the plan to proceed. Two did not.
A professional sport continues to be predicated on amateur conventions, all the poorer for the extra money flowing into the game at the top. The World Cup will, again, show how narrow its base is: the eight previous tournaments have yielded four winners, five finalists and eight semi-finalists. The equivalent figures for the last eight football World Cups are five, nine and 16.

The Nations League would not have changed anything in the short term, but it would have provided opportunity. The Six Nations, with Ireland and Scotland the most vocal, raised understandable concerns – not least the impact of relegation were a second tier established – but the fact that the decision ultimately lay with a body that does not have any independent directors and with a questionable history of governance shows why leadership is an issue.
There is none and, the way the sport is set up, there can be none. It continues to be a haunt of blazers doing deals in rooms which, while no longer filled with smoke, are still polluted with haze. Self-interest dominates. No one wants to see the Six Nations lose its prestige or significance on the sporting calendar, but that was not an intended consequence of the Nations League.
The aim was to use the divisions below the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship to grow the next 10 countries financially and provide the means to develop their infrastructure. Every World Cup tends to see World Rugby get beaten up over a perceived lack of provisions for the South Sea islands who have all, at various teams, used the tournament as a means of exposure and added vibrancy to it.
All World Rugby has to spend is the profit it makes from a World Cup and tier-one nations always want a bigger chunk. Fiji look the best placed of the Pacific nations this year, but as with Samoa and Tonga, the game there is amateur and its best players have to go abroad to earn a living; many end up pledging their allegiance to another country to give themselves the chance for regular Test rugby at the highest level.
A joined-up international competition would, at first, reduce that need and then eliminate it, but that is not going to happen. The Six Nations, like the English Premiership and the Pro14, are looking to tap into private equity, which in effect means enjoying a large short-term loan. That will give clubs in France and England and parts of the Celtic nations the means to tempt more players from the southern hemisphere – and further weaken Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship.

Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the game going open, but what has changed other than money, the physique of players and the greater risk of serious injury? Doors remain shut, access by invitation only. Japan will put on a show, but the legacy will not be theirs to enjoy.

Is Relegation on the way out?

Rugby union coverage, what there is, is dominated by the up-coming Japan world cup. The club game ( the Premiership doesn’t start until mid-October) barely rates a mention, but on September 13, the RFU Council will meet to vote on a controversial proposal to create a 13-team Premiership; should the move be passed, it’s expected that no team would be relegated at the end of next (2019-20) season. The team finishing bottom of the new 13-team Premiership for 2020-21 would then face a two-leg play-off against the Championship winners to determine who would qualify for the following season’s Premiership.

True rugby fans may be dismayed, although not surprised, by such a proposal, with a vast swathe of meaningless games the inevitable result of this ring-fencing. The Championship club will be hugely disadvantaged in this play-off system simply because of the different calibre of opposition each team will have faced in their respective campaigns.

The irony is that we’ve just had possibly the greatest Premiership to date and in large part this was down to the incredible multi-team scrap to avoid the drop that went virtually to the last try.

What a sad day it will be for rugby union if the “right” to relegation is effectively scrapped.

For once, Football seems intent on imitating Rugby

Saracens have just regained their European crown at the expense of holders Leinster. Anyone watching the game could not have failed to notice, be it on the corner flags or the obligatory bottles of “champagne” the Saracens players were spraying over each other after their victory, that Heineken were the sponsors.
The competition is now officially known as the Heineken European Champions Cup.

Started when the sport went professional in 1995, the tournament soon became known as the Heineken Cup (except in France where a peculiar ban on alcohol advertising caused it to be labelled the H. Cup) and remained so until 2014 when the competition became the European Champions Clubs Cup.
This was after two years of acrimonious wrangling between the English and French clubs on the one hand, and the Celtic unions on the other. It was the Anglo-French clubs who wanted to do things differently. One of their arguments for doing so was that the competition, though successful, was not being exploited enough commercially by the current organisers, who were an off-shoot of the body that ran the Six-Nations and effectively controlled by the national unions, not the clubs.

Eventually the clubs won the battle, the competition was re-organised (the number of participants was reduced from 24 to 20) and a new world of sponsorship was promised. Heineken would still be on board but only one of five major blue-chip sponsors. Now five years on that promised land has somehow not been reached and in a marvellous piece of déjà vu Heineken are back, alone, in the sponsors driving seat.

So, what’s that got to do with football? More specifically, with the European Champions League. Back in 2012 one of the English rugby clubs’ major beefs was that because the competition had 24 clubs, current qualifying rules allowed too many minnow competitors, particularly from Italy. Now in a week which has seen four English clubs get to football’s European club finals after momentous second leg come backs in Liverpool and Amsterdam, comes news that the so-called elite clubs in mainland Europe see what is happening and fear for their futures.
La Liga, Serie A, and the Bundesliga together with Ligue 1, cannot generate anything like the Premier League’s TV revenue, and their elite clubs desperately need to significantly increase their income from the Champions League.
Changes due to come into effect in 2014 will mean a Champions League with four groups of eight teams, with guaranteed places for 24 elite clubs, disruption to domestic leagues and fewer opportunities for clubs outside that self-selecting elite.
Central to the new format is the desire of guaranteed new revenues from television and sponsorship for the traditional powerhouses in the major leagues.
Similar noises were being made by rugby union’s revolutionaries back in 2012-14. And look where that has got them….