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….

Champions Cup looking at Rejig

Next month in Newcastle they are promising to host the best weekend that club rugby union has ever known. A convivial city, an iconic stadium, two ding-dong finals and a vibrant late-night social scene: anyone heading to Tyneside is in for a treat. Assuming the weather plays along, it will make Twickenham feel like Madame Tussauds.
It might come as a surprise to many, therefore, that the future of Europe’s elite club competition is not yet entirely guaranteed beyond 2022. The entire road map of domestic and international rugby is in the process of being reassessed and no one currently knows where the Champions Cup and its smaller cousin, the Challenge Cup, will fit in.
It has emerged the private equity firm, CVC Capital Partners, are looking for a stake in the Pro14, having already invested in the Premiership. There has been talk of aligning the two leagues by instigating a winners-take-all play-off between the respective winners. If those sides were, say, Leinster and Saracens, what would be Europe’s point of difference?
The international game remains on another level, a fact underlined by the meagre attendance at the Ricoh Arena for Saturday’s supposed showpiece between Saracens and Munster. The half-empty stadium may have been an unfortunate consequence of Easter, rail disruption and assorted other factors but it has prompted concern even among true European believers. Have we reached the point where, outside the big Irish provinces and Clermont Auvergne, there are not enough travelling fans to justify neutral stadia for future semi-finals?
In short, it is crunch time for Europe. How many Premiership clubs, for example, regarded it as their absolute priority this season? Saracens and Exeter both did but not many others. Survival on the domestic front has been the primary objective for most. Wales, meanwhile, have had just one semi-finalist in the past decade; Italy were not even represented this year.
Small wonder discussions behind the scenes have been intensifying. On top of everything else there is also player welfare pressure. The top players will inevitably play fewer games per season in the future. That means something has to give – but probably not the Top 14 or the newly flush Premiership. Nor will it be the Six Nations, still the northern hemisphere’s biggest selling point and its main economic driver.
Some insist CVC’s arrival is great news: the more competitions touched by their investment, the more chance there is of an integrated global fixture calendar. They also relish the extra money and insist CVC’s influence will only really be felt in commercial areas. Maybe, but if so, why is Mark McCafferty looking to retain his seat on English rugby’s powerful Professional Game Board after he steps aside as Premiership Rugby’s chief executive this summer to join CVC as a consultant? Anyone who imagines rugby will meander along as before without a great deal changing does not fully understand how private equity firms operate.
All of which means that Simon Halliday, chairman of European Professional Club Rugby, is an increasingly busy man. Talking to Leinster and Toulouse officials at their semi-final, he was reassured to find there is still a lot of love for Europe’s existing major club tournament. He said: “You’re not going to throw that away, are you? What would replace it? It’s in the DNA of a lot of these clubs and I don’t think they’ll want to see it devalued.”
Still, Halliday accepts some tweaks could be necessary, not least to current semi-final arrangements: “Having taken a lot of feedback in the last 48 hours, I think we do need to change something.” This could involve abandoning neutral venues or copying the Top 14 model and staging both semis in the same place, though the latter idea carries an obvious risk. “If we stick them in, say, the Aviva and no Irish team gets there, what happens?” Halliday asked.
Around various other committee room tables, meanwhile, all kinds of opinions are being floated. Some argue Premiership Rugby should trim its play-offs to free up a weekend or two. Nor does everyone think the idea of a season-ending Pro 14 v Premiership play-off is a brilliant idea. “Who would give a shit?” one senior administrator told the Guardian. “Everyone will have had enough by then. If they end up playing a meaningless fixture simply to suit a TV audience, isn’t that a case of the tail wagging the dog?”
Even the most epic of Newcastle weekends, therefore, cannot entirely guarantee the future of European club rugby beyond 2022. EPCR, for its part, can only hope the party mood sways a few influential hearts and minds. “There are debates going on from World Rugby downwards and we have been very clear we expect to be consulted,” Halliday said. “It’s in everyone’s interests. We’re not a separate organisation, we’re made up of the clubs, leagues and unions. No one can look at their own competition in a bubble anymore.”
For all those who believe Europe is worth fighting for, these are crucial days.

It’s all about the Money

It’s all about the Money
It is the last bastion of rugby’s good old days in many, many ways. And now it seems that it may be snapped up by the highest bidder to those with the deepest pockets, wrenched away from us mere mortals who have no interest in furnishing ourselves with an unsightly satellite dish and an extra gazillion reality TV show repeats.
The Six Nations place on free-to-air TV is under heavy threat from the ‘equity companies’ sniffing around the tournament as a source of revenue. The unions appear ready to sell the air time for a hatful of millions, millions which presumably will go into… something… we’re not really sure, but we are sure there won’t be as much of a trickle-down effect as they make out.
What we are sure of is that rugby will suffer. Even the organisation which would potentially hold the rights to World Rugby’s Nations League, Swiss company Infront, has warned against the dangers of putting a tournament on pay TV, with VP Dr. Christian Müller saying directly: “…if you put a sport or event exclusively on pay TV, you will kill it.”
Given the amounts of money being bandied about, it is little wonder the unions’ heads have been turned despite this warning, although it has also unleashed the usual squabbles between the English and French and the rest, with the former two insisting they should have a bigger share. Hopefully they’ll fall out so much that nothing will happen.
But Saturdays on the Beeb – or ITV – with the usual pundits will be gone. In their place would be glib promos, faddish concepts, glossy, money-spinning (for non-rugby people) ads and dollars aplenty for the industry. And for the rest of us, a sad vacuum where the Six Nations used to be in February.
Rugby is not soccer. There are not enough people willing to part with a ton of money for the sake of five weekends in spring. And that means there will not be enough children of those people able to stare at the screen in wonder at Cardiff’s full house or benefit from the direct analysis of Brian Moore. Rugby is big, but there’s a limit. It needs its free-to-air outlet. Take it away, and you take away the connection to the next generation too, never mind the current one. And there’s not enough of either to just arrogantly brave the losses.
The final weekend of the Six Nations drew 9m viewers, an extraordinary number for a sport that is more mainstream than many but is still a tiny niche to soccer’s behemoth. Take away its one credible mass media visual outlet and it will simply fade from view – as happened to cricket and Formula One. The RFU reckons England’s November internationals drew a cool million viewers (remember they were playing the All Blacks). That’s eight million fewer than Wales v England this year: how many of those extra who heard the singing and saw the spills in Cardiff were sporty kids who now have a tangible dream?
Cricket especially has suffered since it went to Sky in 2004. Formula One was acquired by CVC (one of the companies sniffing round the Six Nations by the way) and also went to Sky. It made CVC a bomb from advertising revenues and such, but as a sport and viewing pastime it was left by the wayside, with one of the teams describing it as having been ‘raped’ by CVC. Cricket’s finances swelled initially after its move to Sky, but then deflated, while participation, engagement and consciousness of the game all dropped. Ten years after cricket’s paywall defection, a peak Ashes audience of over 8m had dropped to barely 500,000.
Infront’s contribution is by some distance the most sensible: strike a balance. Take the paywall money for some of the games but leave the top bills to the wider audience. It’s all very well swelling the coffers of a union, but if nobody sees the game, nobody will want to play it. And where would the unions get their money from then?