Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Problems with European Rugby

So talks have broken down again on the future of the European Cup in rugby.  There appears to be deep mistrust between the parties, which is a shame.  In essence, there are the English and French teams, who feel that the competition structure is biased in favour of the Irish teams in particular, and against them in general. This appears to be pretty much accurate.  To compound that, the English feel that the preponderance of sponsorship is driven by their involvement, and their market - they're right on this also.  At the very root of all of this, however, is a fundamental difference in philosophy as to how the game should be developed.  And that, perhaps, is the most significant stumbling block of all.

Ireland has been very successful in using its provincial structure to drive the national game.  We have managed to keep our best players at home, invest in the game, and generally speaking elevate the level of rugby in this country over the past fifteen years.  Wales and Scotland are attempting to do the same, belatedly, and it's proving difficult.  Italy is just trying to develop whatever way they can; the national team is still the most significant element of their rugby structure.  But France and England are different.

In France and England, the clubs are the most important structures in the game.  There is no central contracting, and many of the clubs are owned by rich men with deep pockets.  It's hard to escape the suspicion that these guys would prefer to buy a soccer club, but they can't afford that.  Rugby will have to do.  Whatever their motivations, it means that the clubs are the most important thing, and their investments will only see returns with the success of those clubs.  In the other countries, the national Union's investments in teams or provinces may see reward in the progress of the national team, and the revenues that accrue as a result.

The BT deal in England looms over the talks like the grim reaper looking for the soul of a major competition. There are some memories of the Sky deal the English RFU did ten or so years ago that took English home six nations games off terrestrial TV for a couple of years.  But this is different.  That dispute was about how to generate the most lucrative yield from broadcasting rights at the national level.  This dispute is about the development of the game itself; English and French clubs see the development concentrated at the club level. The rest see it at the national level.  It's that simple.

This isn't going to be resolved while those philosophical differences persist.  The Pro12 clubs are not going to yield their focus on the national teams - they don't have the scale to compete with the English and French at a club level.  And similarly, the trend to private ownership of clubs in France and England is never going to permit a refocusing on the national sides.  So where do we go from here?

If it was up to me I'd cancel the whole thing.  Elevate the Pro12 to the premier event in European Rugby, merge the Heineken Cup structure with the Pro12, and perhaps inviting Heineken to sponsor the Pro12 for the first three post-ERC years on a cut price deal.  Work with Romania, Spain,  Portugal and Georgia to get their clubs to find a representative to compete in an expanded Pro16.  The English and the French would be left to deal with each other, and would probably try and form their own competition, an Anglo French cup or something similar.  Good luck to them.

This isn't being churlish, or mean spirited.  I would much prefer the structure stayed the way it is, or changed in some way to address the Anglo French concerns in relation to funding and representation.  But I don't believe that it is possible while such fundamental differences in structure and philosophy exist.  So let those with common visions work with each other.  I don't know how it will turn out, which vision will prove more effective.  But a disaggregated view weakens the sport at a time when competition for sporting affiliation has never been more intense.

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