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

 

 

 

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Could Eddie Jones reignite the club v country row?

So Eddie Jones is now officially the latest savour of English rugby.

Shortly before his appointment (and when he must have known he was one of, if not THE favourite for the post) he gave an illuminating interview to ESPN about how he thought England needed to change in order to be successful. Top of his list, the central contracting of players. Without that he argued, not for the first time, England do not have enough control over their players.
“How can you manage your players when they are controlled by other organizations? Jones asked. “In my opinion, that is the single greatest task ahead of whoever is going to be appointed as the next England coach.”

Jones neatly evaded the issue at his Twickenham unveiling, but it is one that will not go away. New Zealand are the best example of how central contracting can be beneficial. If Steve Hansen wants Beauden Barrett to play at full-back because he thinks he would like to use him there, the Hurricanes will play him at full-back. The indecision over Sam Burgess’s position summed up the problem that exists here in England. Bath saw him as a flanker, England wanted him to play centre; the result-both sides and the player suffered.

Ultimately it is a question of priority. England is somewhat unique in that it has a genuinely thriving, partisan club game. France is the only other country that has a club game with a similar level of support and influence and it is surely not a coincidence that these are the two nations that wildly underachieved at the World Cup.

Many would argue that central contracts is a price worth paying, and the international game should take precedent. But there are plenty of club supporters who pay good money to watch their club play and would argue the opposite.

So herein lies the unanswerable question: how does England balance the need to encourage a thriving club game, with an international side that needs greater control over its players if it is to keep up with the likes of New Zealand, Australia and even Argentina – all of whom have it?

Within the round-ball community the steady erosion of the F.A.’s control over the game could be dated from their decision to be complicit in the formation of the Premier League in 1992. With it came the removal of an international cap as the pinnacle of a player’s ambitions.
The more astute minds at Twickenham must have watched this sorry saga unfold, and determined it would not be allowed to happen with the egg-shaped ball game.
Eddie Jones may or may not carry on with the same opinion. But there must be a few club owners twitching uncomfortably in their seats.

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

If Football is so bad,why is Rugby aping it?

Much was made of referee Nigel Owens’ put-down of Scotland’s Stuart Hogg, who had attempted to win a penalty by diving during his side’s Pool B defeat to South Africa at Newcastle United’s St. James’ Park. Owens reportedly said “If you want to dive like that again, come back here in two weeks and play.” My, how we laughed….
And on the eve of the rugby World Cup John Jeffrey, the chairman of the World Rugby match officials selection committee, reportedly told referees to crack down on what he called “football culture, of simulation, players appealing to the referee,” and horror of horrors, “diving.”

The phrase bandied about by the egg-shaped ball fraternity is usually “we mustn’t become like football.” But if people are throwing themselves over and disrespecting referees in rugby union the blame can hardly be laid at football’s door. To think a player at Saracens or Wasps watches Manchester United’s Ashley Young impersonate a sniper victim and then copies the crime in the Premiership is just plain daft.
To quote Christian Day, chairman of the Rugby Players’ Association “The game is becoming more and more professional, and more and more competitive and professional people will always look for the edge.” Rugby is not copying football. It is reading from the script that says: the bigger the rewards, the lower people will stoop to grab them.

After their humiliation at the World Cup (something rugby and football have in common lest we forget) the RFU have finally got round to sacking their coach, and are apparently prepared to spend whatever it takes on the best man. This is what humiliating defeat does to governing bodies blowing in the gale –force of media and public opinion. And here rugby is aping their football counterparts at the F.A.
They have had a zig-zag approach to coach recruitment for years, careering this way and that, not just changing managers but disowning any philosophy in the bruising aftermath of tournament failure.When home-grown did not work millions were thrown at Fabio Capello.
English football has tried to buy itself out of a pickle and now it appears the RFU will send out their head hunters abroad for the first time, armed with a big cheque book. For the RFU, as it has been with the F.A. for years, it is an admission of defeat. Though as rugby looks at a foreign coach perhaps there is a bigger question, again for both sports. Why do other countries so rarely want our coaches, at club or international level? Anyone for the Stuart Lancaster/David Moyes dream team?
Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

Stuart Lancaster: “I’d like a Newscastle v Sale Final”

England head coach Stuart Lancaster was recently quoted  as saying his best-case scenario for the Premiership Final next May was a Newcastle v Sale contest.

The home nations and France are facing the prospect of having to travel to their summer tours in 2014 shorn of their best players. With domestic finals the weekend before the first tests , players involved  would not be available in time for the first game on tour.

So imagine if last year’s Premiership finalists ,Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints, make it to the showpiece event at Twickenham on May 31. On current selection, over a dozen players could be missing.

England play three matches against world champions New Zealand,with the first on June 7,but with the Premiership Final on May 31, and players not able to fly out until the next day,anyone involved in it will not be available in time for the first test. England will therefore be forced to field a severely weakened side against the All Blacks. after the IRB ruled that the series could not be delayed by a week.Wales and Ireland face similar situations,if their teams are involved in the  RaboDirect PRO12 Final,while any French players involved in the Top 14 will also miss their first test against Australia.

Stuart Lancaster is understood to be deeply frustrated with this situation. With test game time rapidly running out in the lead up to RWC2015, he would have wanted his group of players together for the whole series.

Lancaster himself has been diplomatic about the whole situation publicly, but its time for Newcastle and Sale to step up to the plate…..

When the Barbour brigade’s biggest cheer is for an ex-footballer, things are not going well

A survey of English supermarkets once labelled the standard-issue Waitrose couple as “Rupert and Felicity” and their Lidl counterparts as “Wayne and Leanne”. The average Twickenham crowd at an England game tends to lend itself to the same brutally succinct social profiling. “Twickenham Man” might conveniently be caricatured by his fondness for waxed Barbour, his gently braying mother-country superiority , and his imperviousness to anything so vulgar as myopic tribalism.

But the accusation this autumn is that when it comes to public displays of raw emotion he is just a little sedate. For 40 minutes of England’s match against Australia he observed the disjointed spectacle with lethargy. The drubbing of Argentina seemed,briefly, to leave him more pleasantly soothed.Still the atmosphere was not exactly what you would call febrile. The greatest cheer of a turgid second half was reserved for the sight on the giant screen of David Beckham and his three sons. At least he had the grace to look self-conscious about drawing a lustier reception than England’s players, but there were few on-pitch marvels .

An afternoon at Twickenham for those other than Beckham can be a near-prohibitive expense when even modest seats are priced at £80.but then the Twickenham experience has also become alienatingly corporate in places. Even the message “Great Kick” imparted to Owen Farrell came courtesy of O2.

Somewhere in rugby’s recent revolution the suits have acquired primacy over the true supporters.