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Trying to square the circle

Sandra McDonnell weighs in on the future of world rugby

Even though the 2013/2014 domestic rugby union season is not quite over – the Premiership Final takes place this coming Saturday – I wish to comment upon two linked issues of crucial importance to the future of the sport.

The first touches upon the vexed question of whether the national rugby bodies or elite clubs should have the final say on matters relating to commercial success and therefore player control.

I’ve visited this subject before and mentioned the fact that, perhaps for understandable reasons, the English RFU missed its best opportunity to take a stranglehold ‘control’ (central contracts for elite players) when the sport went professional in 1995. However, having let that specific genie out of the bag, the RFU has since been a relative spectator as the Premiership clubs have constantly pushed the boundaries in their efforts to maximise the commercial revenues available through the general development of the sport. I say ‘relative spectator’ because, with the clubs owning the players on a day-to-day basis, the RFU has had to negotiate and accept limited access to the them during set ‘windows’ in and around blocks of international matches each year.

As with life, all sports have their politics and rugby is no exception. Who will control the players and who will make the key decisions on the future of world rugby development, including the strategy by which it will be achieved and indeed which snouts will be at the trough when the attendant commercial revenues begin flowing. In the Northern Hemisphere, the national authorities and the elite clubs have tended to argue like ferrets stuffed together in a bag.

Last weekend, one newspaper report on the Heineken Cup Final pointed out that Toulon were undoubtedly the best team in Europe – and that statement included consideration of national sides. If your view is that World Cups and national sides should be the apex of the sport – and this applies whether you’re discussing rugby or soccer – it’s a big issue. Whether the very best rugby of all is to be seen at World Cups or, alternatively, in club championships does matter.

Arguably, in the 21st Century, the technical standard and quality of Heineken Cup rugby has been appreciably better than anything seen in a Rugby World Cup.

I can envisage a future for national rugby in Europe in which the current Six Nations championship is ditched in favour of a knockout European (or even Northern Hemisphere) tournament. It makes sense. The bottom line is that the assumptions involved in the concept of the Six Nations – albeit that, when originally set, it didn’t seem like it – have now become as much to do with preserving the historical hegemony of the IRB’s founder nations as anything else.

Why should the quarter-finals of such a tournament not involve – for example – Russia, Georgia, Romania, Germany and/or any other country … perhaps instead of say Italy and/or Scotland … if that year, merit decreed it?

The manner in which rugby’s World Sevens circuit has accelerated development in countries such as Portugal, Brazil, Russia and Zambia – and indeed caused the like of Wales, Scotland and Italy to raise their game – has shown the way. One day Asian countries and the USA will be major players in global rugby. Fans want to see the best players in the world playing against each other – to an extent they already do this via club rugby.

Perhaps Rugby World Cups will become ‘festival’ events, in which they will be able do so whilst playing for their countries.

I don’t see any problem with this, indeed I can see benefits. Historically, many Pacific Islanders have switched countries in order to make money and play in World Cups. It could be argued that New Zealand has maintained its pre-eminent position by poaching the very best from wherever it can find them. How much better would it be if Fiji could bring together its very best players from around the world every four years for a World Cup campaign, rather than having to sit and watch them playing for the All Blacks and/or Australia?

The second – and related – issue is all about player control, irrespective of how the ‘country versus club’ argument is resolved going forward.

Armitage2England currently operates a rule that – save in exceptional circumstances – it will only pick for its national squads players who ply their trade with clubs in the United Kingdom.

As it happens, since it was introduced, in practice there has yet to be an ‘exceptional circumstances’ pick – which is part of the current issue over Steffon Armitage, playing his club rugby for Toulon and now generally regarded as one of the great back rowers in the world.

Today, on the website of the Daily Telegraph, columnist Brian Moore argues that the current RFU stance is a worthy one – see here – DAILY TELEGRAPH

I totally disagree.

Its fearsome physicality renders rugby a ‘short career’ option, which is why players should be entitled to maximise the financial upside of their talents – and should not be ‘penalised’ for it, as England currently does. On merit alone, Armitage should have been a fixture in the England squad for at least the past three years. Arguably, he has become a far better player for playing his club rugby in France, where so many great players from around the world are to be found.

To my mind, there are no logistical reasons (time zones etc.) why someone playing club rugby in France could not also give of his best for England, provided he can be contractually released for all relevant national training camps etc. Headline news, folks – people can fly from A to B by aeroplane!

If the future of annual rugby is to be based upon elite clubs – as I believe in practice it now will be – it does not actually matter whether the best young English rugby players are developed in England, Wales, France or Timbuktu. When it comes to the time for national rugby, the best English-qualified players can always be brought together from wherever (geographically) they normally play.

Personally, I don’t see the problem.

Furthermore – as regards Steffon Armstrong – he should be on the plane to New Zealand next month, and considered for the 2015 England Rugby World Cup, whether this is because the ‘only players playing in the UK will be considered’ rule has been ditched, as I think it should be, or whether he has been made the first ‘exceptional circumstance’ under it.


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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