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English rugby at the crossroads

Whether we like the consequences or not – given that from time to time there’s a natural tendency in all of us to indulge in nostalgia – deep down most of us acknowledge that, for good or ill, human society is involved in a headlong rush to the future.

In such circumstances ‘Stop the world, I want to get off’ is neither a fruitful nor viable life-plan.

In English club rugby the great issues of our time are ring-fencing the Premiership and the existence of a salary cap.

At England international level they are the global sports staple of ‘club versus country’, player burn-out and the current RFU refusal, save in ‘exceptional circumstances’, to consider players plying their trade abroad for the national squad.

As a traditionalist I remain wedded to the principle of promotion and relegation, not least because it smacks of the top flight clubs pulling the ladder up after them.

By removing this opportunity to aim for the stars, aspiration and ambition – surely the kernel of all sports-following – would be fundamentally stifled and any sense that the rugby community was all one big happy family undermined.

However, don’t get me wrong. If I was the chairman or chief executive of a Premiership club, I’m sure that (with my corporate responsibility hat on) I would be failing in my duty if I were not at least to make the case. In the cut-throat world of  business self-preservation and seeking to stack the commercial odds in your favour, for the benefit of your shareholders and employees, is practically the principle task of management.

A salary cap is another interference in the market, designed to ensure a degree of competitive fairness between the clubs. If adhered to by all concerned, it should tend to ensure that, on any given day, any team might win. But it also protects weak and incompetent managements/coaches by holding back the exceptional and strong – the latter might argue that this is restricting future development, a fundamental flaw, which prevents English teams competing with the absurdly rich French giants.

My personal view is that the ‘play in England to be considered for England’ is a knee-jerk, short-term and ill-advised imposition – ‘exceptional circumstances’ get-out clause or not.

With Steffon Armitage and Nick Abendanon excelling in France in the past two seasons – okay, the latter was originally South African, but he wasn’t exactly tearing up trees for Bath in the English Premiership and certainly hadn’t been on the England radar under Stuart Lancaster – we’ve reached the weird position where, with the 2015 Rugby World Cup looming, the ‘for’ and ‘against’ advocates of invoking the ‘exceptional circumstances’ rule are now lobbing grenades at each other.

The ‘fors’ are maintaining that no stone should be left unturned in the quest to help England win the tournament – presumably on the grounds that if the England coaches don’t pick the very best players and then England doesn’t win, some supporters will never forgive them – whilst the ‘againsts’ are maintaining that it would be wrong in principle to pick those who went to France in pursuit of personal wealth over those who could have done similar, but instead (heeding the policy) deliberately chose to remain at home for the chance to make the England squad for the 2015 Cup.

My first point is that the England squad should always contain the best England players, period.

My second is that, at some point in the future – possibly quite soon, who knows – as night follows day, all the world’s top players will be playing rugby for the clubs or teams with which they can make the most money, irrespective of where in the world these are located.

When that happens, the international 15-a-side game will have to adopt the practice of countries flying in their very best players (from wherever they’re then living and playing) for specific tournaments or games.

What would be so wrong with that? All the major airlines have fleets of airliners and heavy flight schedules. Provided international squads have enough time with their squads to develop their chosen tactics and styles of play, the professionalism of the players should do the rest.

As (if) rugby develops around the world, more and more money will be attracted to it. The developments I’ve mentioned will therefore become inevitable. For World Rugby (the former IRB) to put its head in the sand and/or the RFU to try and maintain this ‘play in England if you want to play for England’ rule would be foolhardy in the extreme.

Rugby missed the boat badly by the ‘dog in the manger’ manner with which it dealt with the issue of ‘boot money’ and ‘broken time’’ payments in the 1880s and 1890s, leading to the breakaway of what was then called the Northern Union in 1895 which created a new sport, Rugby League.

Far better to followed the example of C.W. Alcock, Hon Secretary of the Football Association in the 1870s, who took the seminal decision to allow the development of the professional game.

The rugby union authorities – never noted for their far-sightedness or vision – need to get their 21st Century act together, take a view and embrace the way world sport is going, not try to hold it back. If they ignore this challenge they risk presiding over a game that could end up in a backwater somewhere.

I predict the ‘play in England if you want to play for England’ rule will have gone by 2019. If it hasn’t, England rugby will just be shooting itself in the foot.

Again.

About Sandra McDonnell

As an Englishwoman married to a Scot, Sandra experiences some tension at home during Six Nations tournaments. Her enthusiasm for rugby was acquired through early visits to Fylde club matches with her father and her proud boast is that she has missed only two England home games at Twickenham since 1995. Sandra has three grown-up children, none of whom follow rugby. More Posts