Aviva Premiership benefits from our chaotic calendar

There has been a lot of talk this season about rugby’s messy schedule. Concerns over a lack of alignment between the hemispheres, internationals in the middle of the season, the sheer number of games players are involved in and the length of the Six Nations tournament are all concerns for the men at the top.

Sir Clive Woodward recently proposed a five-week tournament, in order to better mirror the knock-out stages of a World Cup. There is also a concern that the tournament robs the Premiership clubs of their players for too long.

Because of the added fallow weeks, that is seven weeks the clubs lose their top players over the Six Nations. There is a further four weeks over the Autumn Internationals, not to mention the various training camps. Most importantly of all, it equates to seven missed premiership matches. That is a third of the season and a possible 35 points up for grabs. To put that in context, Saracens finished last season on 80 points. 32 below them were Bath in ninth.

There was a stark reminder of the situation recently as Gloucester downed the defending champions Saracens, Sale defeated the current table-toppers Wasps, and Newcastle completed their double over east-midlands heavyweights Northampton Saints. Even second from bottom Worcester also beat Saracens. Back during the autumn series, Newcastle claimed an important win against Harlequins and that first against Northampton, and Wasps lost to Gloucester.

The clubs are financially compensated for the loss of their players – with a figure in excess of £200 million agreed between clubs and country – but there is still murmurings about devaluing the game for the fans, not to mention the ‘fair’ aspect; how can we have a tournament where the best teams lose their best players for a third of the matches? When the English football side play competitive internationals there are no Premiership or even Championship matches scheduled.

I will be honest – I don’t care. The crazy, messed up schedule with international players coming and going, is part of the reason to love the Premiership. It levels the playing field just the right amount and stops an elite few running away with it. The bottom teams go into these matches with a glint in their eyes. They know the best are there to be beaten when they are missing those one or two players that separate them from the rest. It also means the best teams cannot rest on their laurels – during the internationals they are exposed and there is an opportunity, not just for their opponents, but for their rivals to gain ground on them.

The play-offs also take care of the ‘fair’ criticism to a certain extent. The occasional loss by the top teams does not necessarily cost them the trophy, they must instead ensure they finish in the top four and all is to play for come May. It may split the difference for a team with regard to fourth versus fifth, or a home or away play-off place, or indeed a spot in the Champions cup, but no system is perfect.

Perhaps more importantly, it also is invaluable for bringing through emerging players. There is the Anglo-Welsh Cup and that plays a role in giving exposure to young players, but it is treated with such disdain by most clubs that often they are little better than b-fixtures anyway. They are definitely not the same as playing in a Premiership game.

I understand the reasons people are calling for the rugby season to be changed – particularly when it comes to player welfare and the madness that the best players may have as little as six weeks off playing to let their bodies recover before preseason starts. And of course, this is a myopic Premiership centred view – it impacts some of the clubs in the Pro12 far more acutely (how are Glasgow expected to be competitive when they lose 15 players to the Scottish squad?).

But I for one like the chaos it brings to the Premiership. It creates the environment for giant-killings by the bottom clubs and the international stars of the future to get proper and sustained exposure to top level rugby. Everyone wins like this.

Mike Miles

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

Rugby follows football….Oh dear

Wasps were comfortably holding on to their 13-5 lead against Northampton last weekend, when the referee awarded the home side a penalty after Wasps’ Jimmy Gopperth gave him some verbals.At one stage his indiscretion threatened to cost his team the match, and his coach, Dai young, pointed out that while it is difficult for players not to shout at a referee in the heat of the moment, players have been made aware of the Premiership crackdown on dissent, and should not be allowed to fulminate like footballers.

 

In the same match Saints full back Ben Foden was clattered late by Nathan Hughes, and had a long look at the referee before writhing around in pain. He is not the first rugby player taken to rolling around on the floor after being body-checked or late tackled and then casting a beady eye on the referee or touch-judge to see if their con act has worked. Obviously it’s football’s fault, a sport long plagued by players as if they were auditioning for Swan Lake.

 

At the Bristol/Exeter match over the same weekend there were reports of a “skirmish” between rival fans in the South Stand at Ashton Gate.  In the grand scheme of things there will be those rugby apologists who argue that it was only a flashpoint incident, and that such booze-filled altercations have been routine down the years at football grounds. And after all, Ashton Gate also hosts Bristol City, so perhaps there was something in the air.

 

But it ill-behoves rugby to try and claim any moral high ground up against football. Consider that we have just had Chris Ashworth’s biting incident, an act of gouging by Brive fly-half Matthieu Ugalde in France’s Top 14, reports in New Zealand of a “lewd” evening involving a Super Rugby franchise , and a young player spared jail for a vicious assault as it might impact on his developing career.

 

Rugby can certainly not afford to be smug.

 

 

 

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

Time for a Rugby European Super League?

Time for a European Super League?

 

There is never a dull moment with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal, not least his wheeze that his club should leave the Top14 and join the Aviva Premiership. Most commentators appear to have dismissed this notion out of hand, but his suggestion could be the thin end of the wedge.

For there are some who would undoubtedly prefer a European Super League  to the current national league set-ups, and , with the European Champions Cup proving, so far , not to be the pot of gold promised a few years ago, there is bound to be a serious proposal to that effect.

The Irish in their glory days might have gone for it, as might some of the wealthier French clubs, and no doubt one or two Premiership clubs could be tempted by the idea.

But just imagine what that would mean for English fans. Week after week we now have derbies that stir up old enmities that have existed in some cases for more than a century, and then on a few weekends each season the European competitions offer the chance to see how other countries play their rugby.

All of that would change if ever there was a European League, and I suspect anyone who advocates such a move doesn’t care an awful lot about the fans. It would effectively end travelling support, and the character of the game would be irrevocably changed for the worse.

That is already the Super Rugby route, where television money is what really matters, and gate receipts are an ever-decreasing proportion of a team’s total revenue.

There is a natural parallel with football, where the most powerful clubs are steadily trying to wrest power away from the central organising body UEFA. Their obsession is with money and it is dividing the game into the elite clubs and the rest.

The worrying signs are that rugby is going the same way, and that must be a worry.

 

Relegation has to be sacrosanct

For London Irish the time is nigh. The theme of whether relegation is a positive or not has been raised far less than usual this season, one suspects in part because goings on at the other end of the table have been more interesting than usual.

Yet the irritation at the way the potential promoted club has to undergo a strict and lengthy facility audit at the same time as all the other Premiership clubs are busying themselves with squad-strengthening is still evident.

Of the four clubs taking part in the championship play-offs only Bedford are not interested in redeveloping or upgrading their Goldington Road ground. There are some sound developmental arguments for the audit, but this should be performed at the start of the year, not at the business end of the season, thus at least allowing a fairer playing field for the new elite team, rather than from a sometime indiscriminate moment in June when all the available playing talent has already been snapped up.

 

It is going to be difficult next season for most of the clubs in the Championship, but rather than going on about the drawbacks of a system that allows those outside the elite to dream, should not attention be paid to investing some of the extra money pouring into the top flight  into making the Championship fit for the purpose of a principle that is enshrined in the agreement between Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Football Union. A new improved financial deal between the two parties will shortly be unveiled but more needs to be done to boost the Championship, many of whose clubs are right up against it financially.

 

One look at the faces of the London Irish players at the final whistle against Harlequins on Saturday was reason enough to tell you why promotion and relegation is a good thing; shattered, distraught, spent. Those raw, pained emotions of course are why we all keep coming back. It is not cruel or ghoulish to want to bear witness to such trials and tribulations. It is the essence of sport- that emotion-shredding ride along the spectrum that runs from glory to despair, from joy to sorrow, from triumph to failure. If you dismantle one by ring-fencing the Premiership, then you dilute the other one two.  The sense of desolation felt by the Exiles on Saturday evening is the mirror image of jubilation that will be the preserve of one of the high-flying Premiership elite at Twickenham at the end of this month. Do away with one and you compromise the other.

 

The sanctity of promotion and relegation must be upheld. That is not to say that the concept ought not to be under constant review. It is only right  that the play-off system in the Championship be scrutinised, There are commercial imperatives in play, both in the Championship and the Premiership, but play-offs in the elite league have validity because sides are weakened, and the integrity of the competition distorted, because so many players are absent during the international windows.

There is no such justification in the Championship. First-past-the-post is the only way to do that bit of business.

 

 

 

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk