Yesterday, because of family commitments upon this Easter weekend, I watched ‘live’ on television only parts of the back-to-back Aviva Premiership games between Saracens and Exeter Chiefs and then Worcester Warriors and London Irish – both courtesy of BT Sport whose overall coverage I think is excellent.
To be completely honest, my respective viewing stints were roughly the last fifteen minutes of the former and three or four ‘dropped in’ passages of between one and five minutes of the latter (simply to keep an eye on the score and thence possibly the issue of whether London Irish was going to be relegated at the end of the season).
It occurred to me that in many ways these two contest symbolised everything one needs to know about English rugby’s Premiership and – to an extent I cannot yet determine [partly because I’m composing this post as I go!] – some of the issues that impact upon all sports vying for attention in the modern ‘global village’ world of social media, broadcasting rights, sponsorship and governments of all political hues seeking to promote and/or improve their image to the widest possible audience.
Let’s cut to the chase.
Saracens have at last attained the position of ascendancy in the English club rugby world that financier Nigel Wray dreamed of when he first got involved with them. They’ve amassed a large, well-paid, squad composed of a mix of bright young English players and hardened ex- or current overseas internationals – most, but not all, of them of South African origin – who are well-coached, well-drilled and very good at what they do. In short, they are now by some margin the best elite club not only in England but probably in the Northern Hemisphere outside France.
Exeter meanwhile also deserve a salute. They were promoted into the Premiership from the Championship less than a decade ago and – under the helm of head coach Rob Baxter and no doubt mindful of their relative lack of financial muscle power – have gone a different route. They also operate with a cadre of exciting up-and-coming young players mixed with other, carefully scouted and assessed, British or mercenary veterans that they can afford. Their ‘scheme’ (if that is the right word) doesn’t work 100% of the time but generally it has paid off. They tend not to go for ‘marquee’ players but instead major upon picking up ‘no nonsense’, hard-nosed, hard-working ‘team’ players who still have the fire of ambition in their bellies (as opposed to merely the desire to slip towards retirement on the back of an attractive pay-check from whomever will pay it).
Yesterday Saracens beat Exeter at home at Allianz Park in filthy weather conditions by the margin of 36-18.
During the eight weeks Six Nations championship ‘’window’ – with half a dozen of their best away on international duty – Saracens had slipped from top of the Premiership table largely – they would say – because other teams, with less players involved in the Six Nations, can make hay in terms of harvesting Premiership points during this period.
Ironically, it was Exeter – who year-by-year have continued to climb the table – who had temporarily usurped top place whilst the Saracen ‘Grand Slammers’ were away with England. Yesterday signalled the resumption of ‘normal’ Premiership hostilities and Saracens took the opportunity to remind everyone of their dominant status.
To be fair the Vunipola brothers, Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell – who deservedly won ‘Man of The Match’ – showed no signs of hangover (alcohol or otherwise-induced) at all from stepping down to resume Premiership duties.
That said, overnight I spotted a report in The Guardian on the article that Saracens owner (I trust I use that word loosely but accurately because there are now also significant-money South African shareholders involved) Nigel Wray penned for yesterday’s match programme, putting the boot into the situation whereby – during the Six Nations – teams like Saracens, who lose several players for its duration, are effectively ‘handicapped’ every year in their main purpose, i.e. climbing to the top (or at least top four and thereby the play-offs) of the Premiership league table.
See here – THE GUARDIAN
Mr Wray’s piece highlights with great clarity the problem with the way elite English rugby is run and organised – and, to put no finer point upon it – ultimately who is, or should be, in control.
As Mr Wray and his fellow Premiership club owners (and indeed the Premiership’s own administrative/executive structure) would have it, English rugby should be all about the clubs. The argument goes that they pay the players’ weekly wages, they have to deal with ‘losing’ players to the national side – and with instances of said individuals returning either burned out and/or having been injured whilst on international duty – and therefore their interests and needs should be paramount. Effectively Mr Wray and those like him hold that all international squad days, training periods and matches are an unnatural and unwanted distraction from what English rugby should be all about.
Nobody is saying that the RFU is perfect, or indeed that it doesn’t score an own goal about 45% of the time that it takes any decisions.
However, let us not forget a few things.
Firstly, rugby union is a good example of that old joke “How do you end with a small fortune in [rugby union]?”
Answer: “You start off with a big fortune … and then invest in it!”
Secondly, far from the Premiership clubs being (as some might like them to be) simply being feeders to the national team, they already buy-in overseas mercenaries by the lorry-load each year in order to maximise their chances of reach the top of the league table each season.
The way things are going [the nay-sayers might complain] it’s actually a wonder that they ever bother to employ English-qualified players at all. In fact, if they weren’t compensated handsomely for doing so – as they are – then (a penny to a pound has it) it’s almost certain that they wouldn’t.
Most of them are heavily in the red – I’ve heard or seen it written that allegedly Saracens themselves, under Nigel Wray and his backers, have accumulated a debt mountain of somewhere between £45 million and £49 million – so one can only presume that collectively their owners are all either (1) happy to qualify for the description ‘wealthy individuals indulging in a hobby’ and/or (2) banking upon broadcasting and sponsorship revenues one day taking them to the Promised Land.
Then there is the vexed ‘Premiership Salary Cap Breach’ issue that the Premiership Clubs – or at least the powerful ones, including some in the dock over it – have somehow managed to kick into the long grass. Or smugly think they have.
For years there were rumours – then an investigation. This uncovered strong suspicions that at least four Premiership clubs had habitually driven a ‘coach and horses’ through the rules imposing a player salary cap [by the usual suspect routes deployed by both agents and clubs in all major sports, e.g. withholding ‘image’ rights, employing family members, paying overseas shell companies, ‘paying in kind’ and so on] for years.
When the draft report emerged there were a series of secret meetings held – even allegedly deals done with ‘fines’ being paid but, of course, no admissions of guilt attached – and the whole embarrassing subject buried. Nevertheless the suspicion still lingers that had those clubs allegedly rumoured to be in systematic breach of the salary cap (and Saracens and Bath are two or the four that I hear most regularly accused – but never proved – to be involved, I hasten to add) actually had the fines potentially applicable, and more importantly the league points deductions, imposed – the outcomes of Premiership titles and indeed qualifications for European cup competitions, in recent seasons might have been very different.
In short – the rugby public and club supporters might like to know that the allegation is that – the fare they’ve been routinely getting excited about, and following, for the past several years has been influenced by a deliberate sham perpetrated upon them by certain club owners. And yet, of course, one can presume that those clubs – together with Premiership Rugby and indeed all other rugby authorities administering or supervising elite English rugby – wouldn’t want anyone to know this, or indeed ever openly consider the evidence because, well, it would just be inconvenient, wouldn’t it? Best let sleeping dogs lie. Even if you’ve had to get your lawyers out to threaten litigation in order to prevent anyone even talking about what’s being going on.
But hey, why are we getting hot under the collar about these never-proved alleged issues within the sport of rugby union?
It’s only the same as what happens in other sports.
Take track and field with its ongoing scandal over the snowstorm of performance-enhancing drugs use evidence and allegations; or Formula One motor racing with its constant rule-changes, cartels and deals with strange, politically-incorrect but very wealthy non-democratic regimes; or professional cycling; or even (well, don’t get me started) the wonderful world of soccer and FIFA.
It’s all about the money, stupid …