Rugby union officially went professional in 1995, a decision that was long overdue, but one that was, inevitably, cocked up. In the mad scramble to establish some sort of order and structure, key opportunities were missed.
This is not just a view benefiting from hindsight, for I have held this view from the outset.
Whenever the interests of big business – not least both the greed of players and agents and the soaring value of television rights – clash head-on with the ‘conservative’, amateur or amateurish, attitudes of the fuddy-duddies who habitually hold senior administrative positions in sporting governing bodies, there is likely to be only one winner.
I do not blame the administrators, many of whom had conducted a lifelong love affair with their sport and offered their services freely, without what professionals would regard as adequate, let alone any, compensation.
However, good intentions are merely that.
As with the English Football Association, which scrabbled desperately to remain involved when a group of what became the Premiership soccer clubs announced their intention to run their own league, in 1995 the English RFU did its best to remain in titular control of English rugby developments and managed it – just. By giving away the candle.
A visionary would have done things differently. He or she would have taken control, contracted the current England players centrally, and completely restructured the national game by introducing area franchises. The existing first tier clubs would then have been forced to become ‘feeding academies’ to those franchise teams – take it or leave it.
As it is, the leading clubs – and their put-upon owners (every one of them gentlemen fans with money to burn, because the one thing you cannot do is make money running a rugby club) – took control whilst the RFU had its eye on other balls … and the seeds of long-term future disharmony were sown.
It wasn’t just the game in England that went wrong. Every northern hemisphere country adopted its own variation of the muddled mess that the RFU allowed to occur by default.
Everything since then has been fire-fighting.
It is now difficult for the national administrators in England to dictate anything to the Premiership clubs, who have lost a collective total in excess of £300 million in the past two decades and want the opportunity to get some of their money back. They’re not interested in ‘growing the game globally’ or any of that honourable stuff. They’re operating in a quasi-capitalistic world in which the simple watchword ‘Let the best play the best’ – surely the most lucrative route for all concerned on the inside – is king.
Hence the current empasse over the Heineken Cup which, if unresolved, is likely to have a potentially catastrophic effect upon the future of northern hemisphere rugby.
The Heineken Cup is a cracking tournament in which every game – even in the group stage – is a one-off clash. In it, fortune favours the brave. Over the years, clubs have learned the hard way that ‘trying not to lose’ is actually a quick route to the exit door. In order to win, in order to survive, you have to ‘go for it’ and not hold back.
The amount of politics in world rugby administration is extraordinary. Ask anyone in Wales, Ireland or France and they will testify exactly this. (I don’t know much about Scottish rugby, except that is in a downward spiral). The current situation in Wales, where the key ‘area’ clubs are in open warfare with the Welsh Rugby Union whilst both are losing their leading players to club rugby employment outside the Principality – it looks as though it will all end in court – does not surprise me in the slightest.
Meanwhile the French Top 14 clubs – who were once hand-in-hand with their English Premiership counterparts in defying the national authorities, but then left them in the lurch – are apparently rowing in behind their national administration, who are implacably in favour of retaining the Heineken Cup (and through the ERC, control of the tournament).
Who knows what will happen next? I certainly don’t. As with so much of global sporting administration, it’s a case of “Watch this space”.
One thing I can predict with certainty is that things will get worse before they get better.