CLUB, COUNTRY OR BOTH?
Heineken Cup: Mid Tier
By P G Tips
July 7 2020
The Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how precarious rugby’s financial model is in Tier One and Tier Two nations alike. This at a time when World Rugby aims to rationalise a global playing calendar to maximise the game’s commercial potential and at the same time reduce the tension between competitions at national, provincial and local level. The project brings multiple interests into conflict, creating a perfect storm. Something’s got to give, but what? And what would the man or woman on the Rec terrace prefer?
The debate is not just about how to reconcile conflicts: Northern Hemisphere v Southern, “traditional” nations v emerging, club v country, “haves” v “have not’s”. It is also about purpose. Is this about the future of the game? About fairness? Player welfare – or a tussle over the game’s key assets-the players? Let’s look at where control of the game might lie.
In agreeing a global approach and World Rugby calendar, it would seem natural for the national Unions to have the voting voice. In many countries – New Zealand and Ireland are leading examples - player contracts are centralised and held by the Union, allowing control over the number of games played at provincial level. What are the Pros and Cons?
- Provides a structure to build a strategy for success at national level.
- Allows a single, unified national playing style.
- Gives one national body oversight and control over player welfare.
- Sets up a “monopoly” employer of elite players.
- Weakens the independence and power of clubs – who own the local assets.
- Threatens the freedom of club or province to adopt their own distinctive playing style (IMHO the contrast in approaches being one of the attractions of the game).
In other countries the clubs have stronger power and ownership. In France, for example this is based on the long tradition of a club championship. In England the RFU were comparatively late in introducing a cup competition in 1972, but the local profile and rivalries it produced led to the formation of leagues and the decline of the value of the County Championship. Club competition opened a new shop window, preparing the way for today’s professional sport. Club dynasties built up, benefitting the national game in a few concentrated centres of excellence – Bath, Wasps, Leicester, Saracens, latterly Exeter – and introduced new supporters to the game through word of mouth and local allegiance.
- A flexible business model. At present most clubs rely on a wealthy benefactor, a share of RFU profits and of TV revenue. Within this trio there is variation on the balance of income and, in the case of Leicester Tigers, a different model entirely – member ownership- effectively a retail income stream. Club ownership of player contracts puts the market in charge of the grass roots finances and success of the club product.
- Variety. Clubs play to the strengths of their assets and, in England at least, frequently to their traditions. This has given us for example, the constant possession game of Exeter, the “Wolf Pack’ defensive approach of Saracens, the 10 man game of Leicester, Wasps “Warrenball”. As said above one of the beauties of the game.
- Tribalism. The attraction of watching your game live in your locality. Fan bases that build organically through town pride, local friendship and identity. The opportunity for new forces to rise in the game – again – Saracens and Exeter from the past decade.
- Conflict over management of the game – the season calendar, status of competitions, the players’ time and loyalties.
- Protectionism. If economic and contract control is held primarily by the clubs they have more incentive for creation of a closed shop- “ring-fencing”.
- Player welfare. A risk of overplaying those in need of a rest, conflict over training methods or medical treatment.
Of course, in most current practice the situation is a compromise. Any successful national team needs a deep pool of players- developed of course at club (or provincial) level. In Ireland central control could be built with little disruption, as there was already a vibrant Provincial competition, with viable identities for the four teams. Similarly in New Zealand where the market and playing strength determined which provincial teams took part in the Super Rugby competitions. There have been some casualties – great names like Taranaki, Hawke’s Bay, Southland have to make do with the Air New Zealand Cup and no longer get a fixture with the Lions. In Wales, where the golden eras of the 1930s, 50s and 70s were built on the club game, Neath, Pontypool, Bridgend, Aberavon are no longer names to strike fear into visiting clubs.
In France and England the Unions have exerted their authority and financial muscle to demand player release for International matches and training, while the grass roots game continues to grow through the rivalry of league and cup competitions.
In both hemispheres there is really a 3 Tier system: Club, an Intermediate Competition (Super Rugby or European Champions/Challenge Cups) and International, the difference being where the sub international profile is strongest. That means club in England, France, Wales – provincial in New Zealand, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa. Some of these reflect long-standing traditions and locations - like Provincial rugby in South Africa and New Zealand. In others the creation of new identities (Western Storm, Melbourne rebels in Australia, Newport Gwent Dragons in Wales) cannot be claimed as unqualified success. In Scotland that great cradle of player development The Borders has been hard hit by economic reality – Melrose, Hawick, Gala and co being too small to stand on their own in the professional world and too embedded in old rivalry to gel as a viable force.
SO WHAT TO DO?
I offer no answers. The situation is complex, with each nation having developed it’s own rugby traditions and structures, which they will wish to protect and grow. Inevitably, in the modern age, a balance must exist between the televised product and the live rugby experience.
I know that I personally love the tribalism, the sense of connection and local identity inherent in club rugby. I also enjoy the regular “fix” of a fortnightly trip to the Rec. That does not mean I do not enjoy international rugby. The Autumn Internationals, Six Nations and World Cup always produce a thrill of anticipation – as does a Lions Tour.
For me a compromise is essential. In those nations where the sport is well established (I include here non Tier One nations – e.g. Japan, Fiji) the club game seems the best way of reaching and expanding an audience, but the hard truth is that the International game is the shop window and the big money generator. Room surely has to be found for both to thrive? The question is, how best to do it?
I am aware that I have not even touched on the detail of a global season, a fair deal for smaller but passionate nations – Samoa, Tonga, Argentina, Romania for example - or the future of the British and Irish Lions – all food for another day perhaps?
For now, I’ll leave you with two thoughts:
What do the players want? They all, of course, want to play –in front of a cheering, supportive crowd. That means, for all but the lucky few, a healthy layer below international is the only answer – the wider the pyramid of that game, the better for country and for the global future of the game.
What do we want? I’ve stated my view above –regular local rugby, plus the elite international game. Each layer deserves it’s own ownership and control.
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Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 2020:07:21:13:37:37 by P G Tips.
Atmosphere and the Rec. In the same sentence, who'd have thunk it
2020/21: Jonathan Joseph
2019/20: Tom Ellis
I regularly change my mind about whether central contracts would be a good thing or not for England. Right now Eddie Jones has more access and more control over "his" players than any England head coach has ever had. I'm not sure that I'd be in favour of the current system but with England having even more of the club players time.
For me it all starts with the balance of the season. So much could (would?) change substantially if we didn't have the issue of club and Country seasons clashing. If that alone could happen I think the current system of club and Country is the best solution. My feeling is the clubs are much better suited to developing talent en masse than the RFU is and we as a country benefit from that. I also think such seperation could allow you to have a bigger England squad including bringing back the Saxons who could play or tour at the same time as the main team but be coached by seperate coaches being groomed for England in the future (think Baxter and Gustard taking the Pumas tour under Lancaster) to pay for that I'd change two things. The end to the ridiculous £25K a game for Internationals. Cut that in half. If the players aren't happy earning £12K for representing their Country find some that are. In the above system you wouldn't need to pay the same release fee to the clubs. Also the Saxons tours would generate revenue.
If you weren't able to change the season it is much trickier. I would still cut the match fee but the big change would be the end of the RFU and successful clubs subsidising the unsuccesful in the league. The new agreements with mean that you get more money for Academy credits is also going to reduce to below £80K the most that EPS players can gain back in credits for their club.
That is beyond idiotic. You incentivise clubs that do nothing to produce talent for England and you get those that do to subsidise the National team and their competitors.
The amount per EPS player is something like £180K? of which £80K can go towards the cap (getting a player to replace the absent player, good luck with that) Another, I think £40K goes to the club but can't be spent on cap and the last element is distributed between the clubs to pay for "access" to EPS players ... whether you produce them or not.
I'd change that to the club that produce England talent get that whole amount against the cap. It's arguable that that amount is too low but you can also argue that that what clubs pay their players isn't the RFUs problem and as long as they are paying within the market range for access to their players it is reasonable.
I love both club, country and the Lions but feel the internationals have been devalued by the sheer number of games each year. Playing the top SH teams every two or three years would make the games more special but money will decide how often we play. The Barbarians should also not be forgotten.
Then figure out how to satisfy that demand without killing the players.
Seems to me there is spectator, TV & sponsor demand for all three tiers:
Internationals (WC, 6N & AIs, not so much summer tours except Lions of course)
Clearly the top players can't play in all of the games of all 3, there has to be a cap.
The number of internationals need limiting so that the clubs get a look in with their stars.
Clubs need to have strong enough rosters so that they can filed teams during international windows.
The clubs probably need a better compensation package when they lose players to the country.
That just leaves the minor issue of a global calendar! You really need to align the 6N and the championship. Given our summers are milder than theirs, it points towards the 6N moving, an unlikely prospect. TBH though I think it would still be a success whenever it was held.
Whatever happens Iíd certainly like the international/club matches not to coincide although wouldnít welcome summer club rugby to make this possible.
There are too many international matches although with the current financial crisis I donít see how they can be reduced.
Evidence of this is I have a season ticket for Bath and have signed up for part of the Lions trip next year.
When I lived in London I probably used to go to a couple of Internationals at Twickenham. Living in Bath I find it too much of a faff so go to one game a year.........always invited by one of my suppliers!
I would like to have only two Autumn Internationals................as watching four distracts and messes up my Bath enjoyment..............however I also recognise the source of funding.
I would like rugby to become more sustainable.......................and what is happening now is going to achieve that.
I could quite happily watch Oldfield Old Boys or Bradford on Avon and so the intensity of an International or a Premiership gap is not essential as much as getting to know how the players play and watching them improve and play better as a team.
Two brilliant teams, made up of supreme athletes, coached and trained within an inch of their lives actually can (does) lead to a quite a sterile spectacle. Whereas a mistake by one team capitalised by the other can lead in the end to expansive exciting rugby.
In terms of player burn-out I would go to squads of 17 players with no substitution other than in the event of injury so maybe a sub of one prop and a utility back..............there are a lot of well discussed consequences to this but most obviously would be smaller (cheaper) squads.
I agree 4 AIs is too many.
Fact is though, internationals are where the sport gets most of its money from.
I agree with the idea that rugby matches should be 15v15 not 23v23, forwards should prepare to play 80 mins not 50.
I also agree that club matches do not need to be test match standard or intensity, therefore see no real impediment to having club games the same weekend as internationals.
Here's an idea: If you could align 6N & championship, turn the AIs into a sort of play off competition. Top two from each play a round robin, so 3 games. Same for 3rd & 4th from each. Next 2 play with top 2 pacific nations (Japan, USA, Tonga, Fiji, Samoa etc). That way OB gets his ENGvNZL rather more often. Hopefully!
In my opinion, Englandís greatest success came as a result of a really competitive league which has been diluted by the greed of the clubs in introducing play offs.
Ireland and wales have seen international success but have diluted the club/region game to an immaterial side show of second teams in the main.
If the RFU and the clubs could look at the benefit of the whole game rather than the snouts in troughs mentality I think we could see the best of all worlds.
The Irish regions have won 6 Heineken cups and 11 Celtic/ProX leagues. Are they really diluted?
The Welsh are a joke.
As for the Irish regions, I agree that their first teams are very good but they are rarely seen in the pro 14.
Would you be happy watching Bath B team in the league for 50% of the games?
I think that's more about the strength of the league than anything else. Leinster can send out B teams and win, because the league is full of weak Welsh, Italian and South African teams.
There are reports that the super rugby Saffer teams will be joining soon. That'll ginger things up a bit!
... IMHO, of course.
Now in Honolulu
Would you be happy watching Bath B team in the league for 50% of the games?
If the other teams were doing the same then I wouldn't be too bothered tbh. Would the overall quality of the rugby be hugely worse? I doubt it as the U20s games and even local club rugby etc are pretty enjoyable if you get two evenly matched teams.
[Adoptee: Tom Doughty - dynamic hooker born in Brighton, made at Team Bath. Record for BUCS top try scorer within a season]