January 8, 2019
It did not take long. Barely has the lucrative deal with CVC Capital Partners to inject new capital into English club rugby union been signed before renewed efforts to move the goalposts have commenced. Fresh attempts are already being made to suspend relegation from the Premiership this season, the first step towards a very different ball game to the one that exists.
Did anyone seriously imagine CVC would sit on its hands and idly wait for its investment to be repaid? It wants a healthy return and wants it asap. Bang on cue, Formula One’s former ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone popped up with some soothing words in the Mail on Sunday. “If you got hold of the guys and tarted them up, it would be bigger than American Football.” Thanks for that, Bernie.
Clearly there is scope to improve how the club game is marketed and promoted, although those with in-depth knowledge of television rights remain highly sceptical of claims there is still a limitless broadcasting rights universe out there. For the sport to propel itself into this “boldly go” Star Trek era at full warp factor, however, it is crucial its core support believes fully in the mission.
Which is why talk of slamming shut the trapdoor to the Championship mid-season would be counterproductive, even if that is what transpires at some stage. As Nigel Melville, the Rugby Football Union’s acting chief executive, suggested last month, it is “wishful thinking” to imagine otherwise. What about those in the Championship (London Irish aside) who have invested in players with the intention of pushing for promotion this season or next? If the rules are explicit in advance, fine. If not, there is already understandable talk of legal action being taken by aggrieved Championship/second-tier clubs.
What happens thereafter, though? What does “tarting up” mean in this delicate context? Where does all this leave traditionalists and less well-populated unions? Is playing games in China really the answer to anyone’s prayers? The Chinese have just landed on the far side of the moon where there will be more atmosphere than for Worcester versus Newcastle in Beijing. The Shanghai Scorpions might have a better chance of attracting local loyalty but, even then, it would take years. The Premiership games played in the United States to date might as well have been staged behind closed doors on Saturn in terms of engaging the average American sports fan.
The public’s appetite for rubbish makeovers being distinctly finite, it boils down to doing it right or not at all. If an NFL franchise-based competition is the endgame, it has to involve a proper draft system, a decent geographical spread and a centralised pot to ensure there are no stragglers, a respected league commissioner making far-sighted decisions for the common good and, crucially, a league that works for the many not just the few.
It is not simply a matter of studying how the Premier League broke free of the Football Association and cutting and pasting the same terms and conditions. Rugby is not football where, incidentally, promotion and relegation remain integral features of the model. Get it wrong and the professional game will not easily be rebuilt. Nor will its architects be trusted to do better next time. One shot, one opportunity and all that.
In that respect the timing of the supposedly leaked Premiership Rugby League meeting minutes is interesting. Ever since the Rugby Football Union missed a huge trick by failing to contract the top English players centrally at the outset of professionalism in 1996, the club versus country narrative has underpinned everything. The big difference now is clubs are flush with new cash at a time when RFU budgets are under pressure and no permanent chief executive is in place at Twickenham.
It remains fanciful, nevertheless, to imagine a rebel league completely independent of RFU funding, full of players who have opted to turn their backs on representing their country. That would seriously weaken international rugby and fail, in the longer term, to assist the Bath owner, Bruce Craig, and others at the forefront of the new enterprise. “Bruce wants his best international-quality players available to him but he also knows they become better players if they play for their country,” said one insider. “He’s not stupid.”
It is equally true the RFU cannot simply stick its head in the sand and wait for its worst nightmare to disappear. Nor can the union say it has not been warned. “When London Welsh went bust they should have got round the table and said: ‘How are we going to stop this ever happening again,’ said another source. “They haven’t done it. It is a massive own goal.”
Those of us who believe in rugby remaining open to all also have to acknowledge that, in a professional sport, money talks. If there were enough sugar daddies keen to fund a fully-pro second domestic tier they would have stepped forward by now. It would not surprise me if, eventually, some kind of global conference system materialises with a world club final at its apex. It will be rugby, Jim, but not as we know it. Which, for its new investors, is the whole point of the exercise.