Six Nations:Can seven weeks equal five?

Scotland no doubt welcomed a rest this weekend after their gruelling encounter against France in Paris, during which four players sustained concussion and Greig Laidlaw limped off after 24 minutes with an ankle injury that ended his Six Nations. Three others had to be replaced because of injuries – so what shape would the side be in were the third round taking place last weekend , as has been suggested during the debate on the global calendar?

The Scots would have had six days to prepare for Wales, who themselves had a short turnaround for last weekend’s match against England after opening in Rome on the Sunday.

The argument for the Six Nations to be played over successive weekends is that it would free up space later in the season, that it could kick off in the latter part of February and replicate the World Cup, when the semi-finalists will play seven matches in six weeks or less. It is being championed by Premiership Rugby, which, under its agreement with the Rugby Football Union, cannot recall England players on the two fallow weekends during the championship.

The Southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship takes a week longer than the Six Nations as sides play six matches on a home and away basis. It is played in three blocks of two weekends and has two fallow weekends. It does not serve as a direct comparison because of the considerably greater traveling distances.

All matches in the Rugby Championship, though, are played on a Saturday. Were the Six Nations to be played in one go, would six-day turnarounds, especially after the first couple of rounds, enhance the tournament? As has already been seen this year, England have the strength in depth to cope with injury problems that wipe out half their pack, but the Celtic nations and Italy cannot.

A five-week tournament would be to England’s advantage, although would Premiership Rugby modify its agreement with the RFU regarding the call-up of players into the England squad if there were injuries in one or two positions? The Celts have the advantage of being able to add to their squads at will, although they lose control of their exiled players during the fallow weekends.

While teams have to play more matches in a similar period during the World Cup, they can often have two games against weaker opponents, when they are able to rotate their squad. And they have three months to prepare for the tournament rather than the couple of weeks they have for the Six Nations, when teams go into camp on the back of two European rounds. Saracens’ England internationals had full-on encounters with Toulon and the Scarlets before joining up with their international team-mates and a five-week Six Nations would require a greater lead-in period and a break for the players at the end.

Would it make a meaningful difference to the shape of the European season other than to keep the cameras rolling? When World Rugby started the talks over a global calendar, it said its main aim was player welfare. A five-week Six Nations would lead to sides hoping they drew Italy on the third weekend so they could – as England will at Twickenham in the next round – use the fixture to rotate.

An alternative is to look at the championship itself. It is 17 years since Italy joined, but recent results in the Six Nations show they are not keeping pace: they have conceded 40 points or more in eight of their last 14 matches. Scotland have done so twice in that period and France once.

A reversion to the old Five Nations, backed up by a second division, would be a way of playing the tournament over five weeks with the two matches each round scheduled on Saturdays. Every team would have a free weekend, although two, the ones who sat out the opening and final rounds, would play their games in one block.

It won’t happen, not so much because of what it would do for the Italian game (Italy are 14th in the world rankings, two places below Georgia) but because it would mean the loss of a home match every two years for the other five, on top of television getting fewer matches.

Recently the chief executive of the Six Nations ruled out promotion and relegation, but in doing so merely reinforced the impression that it is an archaic closed shop, more dedicated to making money for the unions than encouraging proper, meaningful competition.

What must scare the living daylights out of the organisers is the nightmare scenario where one of the big five had a really bad year, got the wooden spoon, and lost in any relegation play-off. Just imagine the furore if that happened, and their place was taken by one of the “minnows”.

RFU Championship – The lessons from London Welsh

All the media attention may be on the Six Nations, but I am looking forward to hearing how the RFU plans to revitalise the Championship.Somehow, the wealthiest national governing body in world rugby has allowed its second-tier competition to sink into disrepair.

Compared to the Premiership, it’s a veritable slum. There are reports of players not only earning well below the living wage, but also having to cover their own medical expenses.Many of these players have chosen to abandon the game. Others didn’t even get that choice. A fortnight ago London Welsh was expunged from the league – and possibly the history books – after Twickenham declared the club’s financial position to be “untenable”.

Sickeningly, the historic side’s one major misstep was in becoming too successful. Promotion to the top flight in 2012 saw them forced to abandon Old Deer Park, their spiritual home, for an industrial estate near Oxford. There they had the 10,000 seats as required by Premiership Rugby. Unfortunately, the bums needed to fill them remained back in Richmond.

The subsequent three seasons saw the Exiles relegated, promoted again and relegated again. This yo-yoing caused such a bout of the bends that they failed to score a single win during the length of the 2014/15 season. Worse, a host of hasty, stop-the-rot signings left them with a mountain of unresolved debts.

The rest is history; London Welsh are now history.

And with terminal failure so closely entwined with fleeting success, who would now want to take up the poisoned chalice of promotion? Perhaps that’s the gist of the RFU’s imminent reveal: a Premiership ring-fenced for the safety of all.

It’s easy to point accusatory fingers at Twickers, but it’s not fair. They can’t be expected to bankroll “untenable” enterprises. Like it or not, professional rugby is a business: it’s sink or swim, and only the fittest survive.

So perhaps we should just let nature take its course. Perhaps rugby in England just isn’t big enough to support two tiers of professionalism.

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

Leicester Tigers are the rugby equivalent of Arsenal

I have written in the past how rugby union is acquiring the (bad) habits of the round-ball game. We are barely into 2017 and Leicester Tigers find themselves in the position of Arsenal post-Abramovich – qualifying for Europe every season, while living within their means and reducing debt, but never seriously threatening to win the league or a European trophy.

Happy new year to you all,” wrote Richard Cockerill in what turned out to be his final programme notes as Leicester’s director of rugby. Less than 24 hours later, the club announced he had been sacked following the defeat by the club who have become as dominant this decade as the Tigers were in the 2000s, Saracens.

Cockerill became the second director of rugby of a Premiership club to lose his job this season following Andy Robinson’s dismissal by Bristol and five sides are now under different management from last season, as are the relegated London Irish. Leicester could not be accused of acting in haste as they faced up to a prospect of missing out on a trip to Twickenham in May for a fourth consecutive season. But as they showed in 2004 when removing another stalwart who had spent 23 years at Welford Road, Dean Richards, sentiment stretches only so far.

Before the start of the Twickenham double-header in 2004, Leicester were by some distance the best supported club in England and the only one to regularly record a profit. At the end of the previous season, their average gate for a league match was 16,120; Northampton were second, 5,000 behind. Bath, Wasps and Saracens did not make it into five figures.

It was a time when Leicester could sign big names from abroad, such as Pat Howard, Rod Kafer, Aaron Mauger – who is in interim charge of the first team after Cockerill’s departure – and Daryl Gibson, supplementing them with those lesser known such as Marcos Ayerza and Martin Castrogiovanni. These days, the elite end up in the Top 14 or as a marquee signing for English clubs able to live beyond their means.

Just as Roman Abramovich changed Premier League football when he bought Chelsea in 2003 and covered debts of £80m, so the ownership model of clubs ahead of Leicester in the table, Exeter excluded, has recalibrated the Premiership.

Saracens’ debt stood at more than £45m last year after an annual loss of nearly £4m, a shortfall covered by the club’s parent company, Premier Team Holdings Limited.

Bath lost £1.8m last year, down from £3m in 2014. Wasps lost £2.4m and took £35m in debt when they issued a bond scheme that is due in 2022, by which time the club anticipate a significant rise in revenue from outside rugby through the Ricoh Arena. Leicester, a public limited company, have the highest turnover of any Premiership club and the largest number of regular supporters, but paying to improve facilities – the latest upgrade at Welford Road cost £8m – left them reaching the salary cap but not making any marquee signings until the arrival of the Australian centre Matt Toomua last summer, and he played just a couple of matches before sustaining a long-term knee injury.

Leicester find themselves in the position of Arsenal post-Abramovich, going from vying for the title to battling for a top-four place while living within their means and reducing the debt on the Emirates Stadium.

It is in one sense fitting that Leicester’s first match without Cockerill was at Wasps. A couple of years ago it would have meant a trip to Wycombe but now it is a Midlands derby with the former London club now based in Coventry, a shortish drive from Leicester and Northampton, another club run on business lines that is scrabbling to keep up.

The Tigers board’s first task is to look at the coaching setup. Does it go for a director of rugby in the Martin Johnson mould, someone who would let the head coach run the rugby side while having responsibility for recruitment and contracts, or continue with the current structure? Then comes the question of how to compete with clubs such as Saracens, who are able to absorb large losses. Is the old way, on and off the pitch, becoming the wrong way for a club that should be the model for others?

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

What if Germany bothered with rugby?

Amidst the plethora of rugby internationals this autumn probably the only real shock was Ireland’s victory against New Zealand in Chicago.

Overlooked by most was the result of a game in Frankfurt where Germany defeated Uruguay 24 – 21 after trailing 15-6 at the interval.  Uruguay started the day 19th in the world rankings, seven places ahead of Germany, who won the match with the last kick of the game.

Last season, Germany avoided relegation from the top division of the European Rugby Championship, and their stated ambition is to qualify for the World Cup, in 2023 if not 2019. World Rugby is anxious for the game to take off there as it looks to widen rugby’s commercial boundaries; beating Uruguay ( who we must remember were in England’s group at last year’s World Cup) was a good start.

Could we be approaching the day when Germany and England meet in a full Test match? After all, beating England via penalties would hardly be a German first…….

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

The Rugby Calendar is still a mess

Rugby Calendar is still a mess

 

Amidst the plethora of internationals over recent weekends all but the most diligent rugby fan might have missed that the Anglo-Welsh Cup was being played.

The Anglo-Welsh competition (which incidentally does not even have a sponsor) may be small fry in the greater scheme of rugby things, but as a development tournament it allows clubs the chance to rest some big names and blood youngsters. ( Maro Itoje captained Saracens to the title in 2014/15).But it also has the most complicated qualifying system in rugby; there are four pools of four – but you do not actually play any sides in your pool.

 

Now a weekend ago we had an Anglo-Welsh competition without any Welsh clubs playing in it because there was a full programme of Guinness Pro12 matches.

So when you cannot align fallow weekends in the Aviva Premiership and the Pro 12 for such a competition (we have just had an all-Welsh round when the Premiership is on!) you do begin to worry.

Mind you, we have also had the farcical situation whereby two Welsh Pro12 derbies (and the only games where the Welsh regions can really make any money) were played without their top players because someone, somewhere, had seemingly forgotten Wales were in camp and thus were not obliged to release their players ahead of the debacle against Australia.

 

That test in Cardiff also threw up some uncomfortable questions, with a crowd of only 55,776. It was played outside World Rugby’s autumn window, and played purely for financial reasons. Australia of course were handsomely paid for turning up, as they will be by England on December 3, another test played outside of the window. That game will be Australia’s 15th Test of the year. They have all been played since June so they have been averaging more than one every two weeks.

 

Therein lies the rub. Rugby union is fast approaching a crossroads, with 2019 as its junction, and no schedule agreed thereafter. There is evidently much jockeying for position going on, much hot air being spouted (Such as New Zealand threatening to go it alone) and all the while a ridiculous schedule continues. That All Blacks game in Chicago, for all the significance of the result, being outside the window and really only about the money.

An agreed global season looks like a pipe dream quite frankly. Aligning north and south would be just as impossible as currently aligning domestic and international schedules, but there has to be some serious compromising.

Banning money-spinning autumn internationals outside the window might be a start.

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

England won’t be going North anytime soon

Welcome to the month of November when half the world’s planes seem to be stuffed with rugby players. Most have no choice if they wish to pursue their chosen trade. Ireland and New Zealand were in Chicago while Australia and South Africa were in London. Fiji are training in Toulouse, with England opting for a short warm-weather break in Portugal. There are almost as many gumshields passing through departure lounges as giant Toblerones.

There is good reason for this hyperactivity. The game is increasingly global and spreading the gospel can be lucrative. The All Blacks were not in the States purely for the fresh Illinois air and Argentina did not stage their Rugby Championship Test against Australia at Twickenham last month because of the local tango-dancing scene. Beyond the financial inducements, though, there are additional benefits: a change of scene can eradicate staleness and complacency and create unexpected new friendships.

Last season’s Top 14 final in Barcelona was a case in point. It was shifted to Catalonia only because French stadiums were being used for the European football championship but the staggering attendance and vivid atmosphere made every continental administrator sit up and take notice.

Which brings us back, not for the first time, to the Rugby Football Union’s narrower horizons. Aside from one short hop across the Irish Sea to Dublin next March, their flight to Portugal is the only time the majority of England’s senior squad will have to board a flight on international business between now and next June. With just about everything the RFU organises occurring in the Home Counties, a valid driving licence and an Oyster card are pretty much the only requirements.

Once again all four England internationals this autumn will take place at Twickenham on successive Saturdays. Financially, the schedule stacks up nicely. Four 80,000-plus attendances, in addition to all the associated corporate hospitality benefits and huge bar profits, will clearly swell the coffers more than taking the odd home Test fixture out on the road.

But hang on. This is a union which has just posted revenues of £407.1m, with record profits for rugby investment of £102.3m. Admittedly a large chunk of that was a consequence of staging the 2015 World Cup but the RFU is far wealthier than any other union. Where it has been less obviously successful is in raising the profile of rugby union in the north of England, a recurring issue that does little to promote the 15-a-side code as a truly national sport.

It can be easy, and somewhat misleading, to dismiss English rugby league as a game played in just a few northern counties. But what about the latest England senior rugby union team? Before josh Beaumont was called in as an injury replacement, only one member of the 33-strong training squad currently plays for a northern club. Sale’s Mike Haley is that rarest of comets, a northern resident who has caught Twickenham’s attention. None of the other 32 lives north of Leicestershire. Before last autumn’s dead rubber against Uruguay, England had hosted one full international in Manchester since 1897.

With Ian Ritchie as chief executive and another northerner, Andy Cosslett, recently sworn in as the RFU’s new chairman, it is not as if there is a lack of appreciation inside Twickenham that the world does not stop at Watford Gap services. Apparently there remains a continuing desire for representative teams to play at northern venues but, crucially, not the senior XV.

It is not good enough. Where would English football be without strong northern clubs? How insular would English cricket look if it did not stage a single Test or one-day international north of the River Trent? How does English rugby union plan to enthuse youngsters and their families from Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumbria if it gives league a largely unopposed head start? Is it entirely a coincidence that northern lads – Chris Ashton, Sam Burgess, and David Strettle – seem increasingly more comfortable with the idea of playing abroad than sticking around in English union. Or that the two main northern cogs in England’s backline – Owen Farrell and George Ford – gravitated towards union largely because their fathers took coaching jobs down south? Tommy Taylor and Danny Care bring the total number of northern-born players in Portugal to a measly half dozen.

Maybe it is idealistic to think that playing a Test match against Fiji – or Australia come to that – in Leeds or Manchester would directly assist England in winning the 2019 World Cup. Maybe the RFU’s profits would be affected. Maybe it would be less convenient for Eddie Jones to train his players beside the seaside in Blackpool or Bridlington than in Brighton or Brown’s sporting academy in Portugal. But New Zealand train and play at venues all around their country and it does not hinder their national team – the opposite, in fact. Sticking to convention and doing what you always do is no way to run or grow a sport, let alone deliver a truly national side. England do not even have to board a plane to locate fresh new frontiers.

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

 

Rugby union should be wary of following football into financial fantasy land

As English football struggles to find its way through the clouds blown up by the Sam Allardyce affair,  it is perhaps as well for rugby union that there is barely a transfer market to speak of and no scope for third party ownership.

Football is awash with money, but it is not the root of all evil. The salaries of some Premier League managers exceed the salary cap in the Aviva Premiership, and while there was a whiff of scandal last year with allegations of cap irregularities investigated and buried, there is far from a financial surfeit at the top level.

Leicester Tigers chief executive Simon Cohen is already warning that the premiership salary cap is at a dangerously high level. For there is now a clear dividing line in the Premiership between those clubs, such as Leicester, Gloucester, Northampton and Harlequins and Sale who spend what they earn and others such as Saracens and Bath, who have loaded backers, and Wasps, who raised £35m through a bond scheme.

Cohen’s point, which contained the implicit message that clubs trying to live within their means were being forced to keep up with those prepared to carry debt, was that wage inflation had reached a level where all players, whether top internationals or rank and file, were earning considerably more than a few years ago and that squad sizes were, as a consequence, shrinking.

“Smaller squads are detrimental to player welfare,” he said. “Players will play more matches in a sport that is becoming quicker and faster with bigger hits coming in all the time. I think the salary cap is at a point where it will be dangerous for the game if it goes higher. Spending on players is going up from £60m to £80m this season and a huge amount of revenue that could have gone into stands, community projects and developing the game, has gone straight into the pockets of players at a time when it is becoming much, much harder to fund the salary cap.”

At least the Premiership has a fixed cap which every club has to adhere to. It is different in the Pro12 where most of the sides are funded directly by their unions. The Welsh regions have a salary limit of £4.5m which is less than their rivals in other countries, but they have some relief in the form of national player contracts which means the Welsh Rugby Union pays the bulk of the wages of the (relatively few) players concerned.

In France, the cap is £10m, although there are ways to extend it, as Racing 92 are doing with Dan Carter and Toulon did with Jonny Wilkinson, and bonuses are allowed on top of the cap as long as they do not exceed 10% of it. It is rigorously, and transparently, policed as Toulon found out last season when fined for breaching the bonus limit, an affront the club’s owner Mourad Boudjellal, who is still sore enough to question whether he wants to remain in the game.

Clubs in England and France have in the past couple of seasons enjoyed a substantial increase in revenue due to television and sponsorship deals. Cohen’s contention is that, like football where the Premier League has had an explosion in income since Sky was joined in the rights’ pursuit by BT, the extra money goes on wages with little filtering its way into improved facilities, investment or subsidising costs borne by supporters. It is to football’s( the round ball variety) shame that despite all 20 Premier League clubs being on European football’s rich list, they make players and managers multi-millionaires while expecting supporters to, at best, cough up as much as before.

The more they have, the more they spend to the point where they are no better off. If the bubble bursts, supporters will not switch allegiances like players and will be the ones counting the cost.

Rugby union remains a sport where interaction with paying supporters remains important. It was not that long ago that Leicester were among the clubs lobbying for a rise in the salary cap to help English clubs compete with the French and Irish in Europe: the best supported club in the country had the means to fund the increase, but others now have greater spending power through debts that are guaranteed.

Premiership Rugby did not enjoy its finest hour last year when revealing the outcome of the salary cap investigation into whether certain, unnamed clubs had exploited a loophole or two. It seemed to be a case of “we know who it is, and if they do it again, there may be trouble.” It says it has tightened up procedures, but supporters are entitled to transparency on a French level.

Clubs in France are often mocked for their spending, but anyone who either exceeds the cap or fails to provide the means to pay the budget it declared at the start of a season is punished severely; relegation in the case of the latter.

Financial fair play in England would be a start to ensure that clubs bankrolled by debt do not threaten the financial models of those who balance the books. The salary cap has reached its sustainable level for the near future and as recent events in football have shown, rugby needs to keep in contact with its roots, not unreality.

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk