London Welsh must now focus on organic growth

The points against column for the season for London Welsh have soared past the 1,000 mark – and the previous record, held by West Hartlepool. The Exiles finished the season with 1,021 points conceded over 22 matches, surpassing the 1,007 shipped by the north-east side in the 1998/99 season. Small consolation, but in those days there were 14 teams in the Premiership, so that the tally was racked over four more matches.

It closes the coffin on Welsh’s second stint in the Premiership. And so bad has it been that the Premiership suits could moot an end to promotion and relegation while pointing at the hapless Welsh as a reason why.

Off the field, where the real problems have always lain, London Welsh were never ready for Premiership rugby, this time or last. The Kassam Stadium, in theory a perfectly pleasant ground, has echoed to the sound of a few thousand fans. So if there’s one thing we have learned from the London Welsh experience, it is that those much maligned minimum standards criteria were not quite such a ridiculous concept after all.

Clubs such as Exeter and Worcester have spent years putting together credible packages for the Premiership; Welsh’s application to the inspectorate three years ago was last minute and on the hoof.

The good news, though, is that there may yet be life at the Kassam. Wasps have now left the area and if London Welsh can attract any floating fans in the Thames Valley they could grow into an attractive proposition. It will take a few years. And those years should be spent in the Championship.

Mike Miles

Don’t hit a man when he is down

Another season ends; another promotion-relegation debate drags on

England’s leading clubs have pounced on London Welsh’s failure to compete in the Premiership and used it as a key weapon in their regular quest to ring-fence English rugby’s top flight. Twenty-two straight league defeats does not make pretty reading for the Exiles or the league as a whole but they have been handicapped since before even the start of the season.

Denied the same amount of central funding as their Premiership rivals, the timing of the Championship season means that their place among the elite is not confirmed until what seems like mid-summer and so their recruitment plans are hampered badly to say the least.

The fear of relegation can inspire thrilling and crowd-pleasing rugby at the wrong end of the table to rival that being played in the battle for silverware with teams fighting lives and players for their livelihoods. London Welsh may have failed spectacularly this season, but the likes of Exeter have thrived. Long-term financial planning may be hindered by uncertainty but drama puts bums on seats.

By all means engineer an expansion to the Premiership that will see sides clearly capable of competing – Bristol and Worcester – given an invite to the party but do not bolt the door.

Promotion and relegation must remain with a play-off between the Championship winners and the Premiership basement side perhaps the most likely compromise.

Mike Miles

Please bring back the 57 old farts

2015 being a year of anniversaries, someone mentioned the other day that it is 20 years since Will Carling’s pithy verdict on the RFU committee as “57 old farts” entered the sporting lexicon. The phrase nowadays would probably only qualify as a wry compliment by social media standards, but, can we honestly say, hand on heavily-sponsored heart, that the amateur era’s buffers, blimps and blazers were worse than the game’s current administrators who replaced them?

Because a quick count of the issues stacking up within the game do not reflect terribly well on the current guardians of the union code.

It is not merely the rising stench from beneath the carpets at Premiership Rugby, where the serious matter of alleged salary cap breaches have seemingly been swept. Perhaps we should simply resign ourselves to the air-brushing of anything which conceivably threatens the commercial bottom line, particularly the latest huge broadcasting deal with BT Sport. Is it not too much to ask those who know the truth to have the guts to step forward to share the details with us, the paying fans?

The same sense of disquiet applies to the proposed moratorium on promotion and relegation to and from the Premiership from 2016/17. This is not an argument which can be had in isolation. Either the RFU, its leading clubs and English rugby in general want a vibrant, healthy second tier beneath the Premiership or they do not. Simply pulling up the relegation drawbridge , imposing a low ceiling on the funding available to those outside the magic circle and insisting everything will be rosy for the disenfranchised majority is, at best, wishful thinking.

Where is the rugby equivalent of Bournemouth, just promoted to football’s billionaire playground, going to come from?

With the World Cup only months away, where is the breadth of vision at a time when rugby union has a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to spread its gospel. A recent letter to “Rugby World” put it succinctly: “Have you noticed the air of excitement in Britain about the World Cup? No, neither have I. With less than five months to go, the silence in anything but the rugby press is deafening.”The ousting of Debbie Jevans as the figurehead of England Rugby 2015 less than six months before the start of the tournament was accompanied by a deafening radio silence from Twickenham. The RFU used to be more open in the days when its phone number was ex-directory.

To finish off on Europe…Toulon have just won the inaugural European Champions Cup, the successor to the Heineken Cup. But the supposed new broom in Europe still has work to do on the perception front. Four of the five main sponsorship slots for this new completion remain unfilled. The only blue chip sponsor on board is……Heineken. And let’s not forget that a blizzard of free tickets was required to boost the attendance at European rugby’s flagship Twickenham final between two French sides…

Mike Miles

Do Sky have an Irish love-in?

The European finals last weekend gave us a great opportunity to compare BT Sports’ coverage of rugby with that of Sky with both broadcasters covering the two finals. It’s a matter of personal preference of course , but I just find BT’s coverage more to my taste, and a bit less pompous.

Premiership fans have long been irritated by Sky’s Irish love-in, and that was evident again in their coverage of the Toulon v Leinster semi-final. There seemed to be no pretence of anything close to impartiality, and if we’d cut to Myles Harrison and Stuart Barnes in Leinster shirts I wouldn’t have been surprised! I have a lot of time for Stuart Barnes as a writer but as a broadcaster I wish he would take a leaf out of the late Ritchie Benaud playbook – less is more!

It’s hard to get numbers for Sky Sports subscribers in the UK and Ireland, but it seems likely that it’s roughly 20:1. However, having lost the rights to broadcast the premiership, it looks like there a distinctly pro-Irish flavour to their rugby output, and the rest of us will simply have to lump it – or press the mute button!

We have just had an all-French and all-British European final. Of course we need neutral referees when clubs from different countries are competing ,but when it’s a one-country clash ,might it not make for a better spectacle to have a home ref? Let’s face it, Pro 12,Top14 and Premiership matches are all ref’d in slightly differently ways, and the players are used to that.

I would have thought that a native French speaker would have been a better choice for the Champions final in particular. Nigel Owens is a superb referee, but how many of the players at Twickenham understood his English comments in a broad Welsh accent?

Mike Miles

Saints win top of table clash

Northampton…….25  Saracens…………..20 – Stadium MK: DONS – Saturday 25th April 2015

Attendance 27,411

Stadium MK will get its first taste of international rugby at the World Cup later this year, when it is scheduled to host three matches, including the France v Canada game on October 1.Today’s “Best of British”, top-of-the-table clash between Northampton Saints and Saracens has long been switched to the 30,500 capacity stadium as part of tournament organiser England Rugby 2015’s operational testing programme.

Let’s hope they were watching closely. There was gridlock around the ground for more than three hours before the 3.15 kick-off; due it would seem mainly to road closures.

The last time I was here I picked a Saturday when the infamous “engineering works” meant a half-an-hour journey took almost five times as long.  Has anyone bothered to check that Network Rail does not intend to carry out work on the West Coast main line next October?

This wasn’t the only cock-up. Saracens had to do a quick change of shirts at half-time because of a clash with Northampton. Saints had informed Sarries that they would be wearing a St George’s Day kit of red and white, designed to support Help for Heroes. Saracens must have not got the message and the visitors turned up in their normal away strip of all-white. The referee allowed the game to go ahead while Saracens had their normal black shirts delivered by a police escort in time for the second half.

Both teams have used Stadium Mk as a home from home in the past. Saracens were the first club to host a rugby match at the ground when Bristol visited in 2008, providing a grand stage for Rugby World Cup 2003 winner Richard Hill’s 288th and last appearance for the men in black. A last-minute try from Kameli Ratuvou ensured Hill’s 15-year club career finished on a winning note.

Northampton then used Stadium MK as a base for their assault on the Heineken Cup knockout stages in 2011. The Saints defeated Ulster and Perpignan in front of big crowds in the quarter and semi-finals. The following season also saw Munster stop by for a pool match, with Simon Zebo marking one of the most thrilling chapters in the stadium’s short rugby history with a hat-trick as the Irish side won an entertaining contest 51-36.Saracens once again visited for their home Premiership fixture against the Saints on December 310, 2012, while their new stadium at Barnet was being built.

MK Dons moved to their brand new stadium (which cost about £50million to build) in 2007. From the outside it has a modern look, with good use of silver coloured cladding and a large amount of glass on view. The most striking feature is the stadium’s roof, which sits high up above the ground with a large gap between it and the back row of seating which allows more natural light to reach the pitch. The stadium is totally enclosed and has a bowl like design.

The overall look of the stadium has recently benefitted from the installation of seating into the previously unused upper tier. This will take the capacity to 30,700 for the World Cup. It is two-tiered, with three sides having a large lower tier over-hung by a smaller upper tier. The west side of the stadium is slightly different, with the seating areas in the upper tier being replaced by the Directors box and executive and corporate hospitality areas.Unusally the spacious concourse areas at the back of the lower tier see directly into the stadium, so where is what seems a noticeable gap between the lower and upper tiers is where the concourse is located.

Once you get into the stadium it is a delight. Chatting with other fans, the majority were greatly impressed, commenting on the comfort and legroom in the seating, with excellent views of the action and a great atmosphere. The toilet facilities have been especially praised by many fans, male and female, offering wide entrances, soap and hot running water. Such luxuries at a football ground! The stadium even has such creature comforts as padded seats and the ability to watch the game in progress whilst munching a burger on the concourse.

There was an excellent fan area with around 15 branches of famous restaurants. Provided you set off in the next week or two to make sure you arrive on time, then the Milton Keynes World Cup experience should be fabulous….

But enough quibbling…let’s not forget there was a game of rugby. This biting and blasting contest marked the end of Northampton’s late-season dip. After their heavy defeats at Clermont and Exeter they had the game to hold off an heroic attempt by Saracens to dethrone them from the top of the table. Saracens, themselves coming off a draining match in France against Clermont, had to absorb the massive blow of losing Billy Vunipola in the first half to injury, being pulverised by the referee and losing a significant lead. But their commitment was beyond praise.

However, the Saints eventually overcame the sinners of Saracens, whose discipline collapsed along with their scrum after the break, when they were penalised 13 times and finished a match they led for the most part fortunate to have a bonus point. When Stephen Myler gave his side the lead for the first time 63 minutes in it was via his fifth penalty, and the Saints had found a way to win.

Mike Miles

Is the Challenge Cup worth the hassle?

A distinct hint of déjà vu swirled around last weekend’s European semi-finals. A decade ago three of the four last eight ties in the then Heineken Cup were hosted by French clubs. Of those French sides, all reached the semi-finals and two of them – Toulouse and Stade Francais – contested the final.

Now dig a little deeper into the Euro pyramid. Ten years ago there were five Top 14 sides in the European Challenge Cup last eight; this year there were none. As far as the French are concerned, European club rugby’s second-tier competition is no longer worth the hassle.

They are not alone. What should be the UEFA Cup or Europa League of rugby feels more akin to the League Cup. For all sorts of reasons the Challenge Cup is presently in danger of losing its raison d’être. The winner is not even guaranteed to qualify for the Champions Cup next season (something football’s equivalent will offer this season’s winners), having to make do instead with a play-off spot.

The principle of three second-placed pool sides dropping down from the elite competition for the knockout phase has also been quietly dropped since the main tournament was reduced from 24 teams to 20.

Next season will be a different story – but only because it is a World Cup year. The Challenge Cup winners will qualify for the following season’s Champions Cup but in 2017/18 there will be a permanent switch back to the play-off system.

If say Gloucester win this year’s Challenge Cup to outflank the seventh-placed Premiership finisher, they will only play in the elite event should they beat the seventh-placed Pro 12 side , followed by the seventh-placed Top 14 side on May 30.

By then everyone involved will be on their knees…..

It all threatens to spawn a competition that is a waste of everyone’s time and effort. The whole driving force behind the new European set-up was to reward merit. Surely it says more about a team’s qualities if they battle their way through a series of sudden-death matches to win a worthwhile trophy, rather than simply rewarding them for mid-table mediocrity.

If there has to be a play-off for 20th place, perhaps it should be between the seventh-placed Pro12 team and the top-ranked Italian club, if the latter has finished outside the top six. That would retain the principle of Italian involvement in the Champions Cup – but only absolutely guarantee a place if they earn it on the field.

Automatic Champions Cup qualification would similarly reinvigorate the meandering Challenge Cup and make it worth cherishing again. A seriously competitive Challenge Cup – incorporating a worthwhile prize for the Champions – should not be beyond the wit of European rugby’s administrators.

These should be boom times for European club rugby – and that is before any “knock-on” effects from the World Cup. There were 84,068 at Wembley a few weeks ago, and, despite London Welsh’s struggles, there is reportedly a 5% rise in Premiership attendances this season. This all suggests spectator interest in the sport is growing – yet directors of mid-table squads across Europe are all being forced to prioritise the domestic front.

Mike Miles

Same old (Heineken) story, and Pragmatism>Beauty

For the third season in a row, Toulon, Clermont and Saracens are into the semi-finals if the European Cup. Leinster join them this year where Munster had joined them the two years previously, a total of five teams over three years.

During the three years previous to that, however, Ulster, Edinburgh, Clermont, Leinster, Saints, Perpignan, Toulouse, Biarritz and Munster had all appeared in the final four of the now defunct Heineken Cup.

So while the competition may have been streamlined and given a new name this season, it seems little has changed in terms of where the power lies on the pitch.

And looking back at the quarter-finals, one thing we learnt above all else – from three of the four results at least-is that when it comes to knockout rugby, it pays better to be powerful and clinical than daring and inaccurate. Leinster, Saracens and Toulon all came out on the right side of the result despite playing much less attacking rugby than their opponents. They won their games through the power and precision of their packs, and the boots of messrs Madigan, Bosch and Michalak respectively.

And this provides the answer to the main question that emerged from the helter-skelter final day of the Six Nations-namely, “why don’t teams play like this more often?”In the cold, hard world of knockout rugby, when winning is all that matters, it is more often than not the side that has the greater power-and therefore doesn’t need to chance its arm by flinging the ball around and making more errors-that will come out on top.

If teams don’t need to throw caution to the wind because they know they can win by battering the opposition and kicking the resulting penalties, they will do so.

Mike Miles

Jevans’ Departure – Does RFU no favours in PR stakes?

It’s not surprising that Debbie Jevans has decided to keep quiet her “personal reasons” for resigning as chief executive of the England World Cup 2015 organising committee because it has since been revealed that she is expecting a £150,000 pay-off. Her annual salary was said to be in the region of £250,000.

However, the Twickenham rumour mill has been working overtime with reasons for the Jevans walk-out, just six months before the tournament starts.

One reason touted is that the former director of sport for the London Olympics had a series of fall-outs with RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie. She already knew him as CEO of the All England Club, where Jevans is a committee member.

There are strong suggestions that Ritchie, in turn, was being pressured by the RFU management board, and the RFU committee (Will Carling’s 57 “old farts”) to make sure that the RFU bucket and spade brigade were being properly looked after by England World Cup 2015 in terms of hospitality and tickets.

So with Jevans refusing to ladle out the gravy to the RFU blazers, preferring instead to make sure World Rugby and her former Olympics operatives were catered for-especially in terms of recruiting a 200-strong RWC2015 staff contingent – the knives were out.

Word was leaked that the World Cup trophy tour was not up to scratch and that grass-roots clubs were not being involved sufficiently. Then it emerged that Ritchie was shocked by staffing levels at RWC2015, which he considered to be excessive.

Whatever the reasons, it does not reflect well on the RFU to get into a position where an administrator with Jevans’ successful track record in sports administration walks away from such an important position because of “intractable differences”.

Mike Miles

Do TV bosses need to be kept in line?

Warren Gatland has remarked that France and Ireland have opened the Six Nations against the two weakest teams, Italy and Scotland, with alarming frequency.

For the record: France 11 times in 15 seasons, and Ireland nine, compared to England (six) and Wales (just four).

The Wales coach noted that getting a good start is crucial, and questioned whether TV broadcasters were influencing the schedule. He added:” I don’t know if there should be a rota…some teams have obviously had easier starts on a regular basis than others.”

We all know that TV money makes the world go round, but isn’t it time for the rugby suits to stand up and be counted when it comes to representing the best interests of the sport.

There is a balance to be truck between a good commercial deal with broadcasters that helps to cement the foundations of the professional game, and kowtowing to their every demand for fear that they will take their money elsewhere. At the moment that balance is out of kilter, mainly because rugby’s committee men cannot bring themselves to say no to the television brokers.

For instance, the BBC should have been told that the last round of the Six Nations has to be played simultaneously because with a staggered schedule. The integrity of the tournament is devalued if the teams that play last know exactly what they have to do to win

England had that advantage this year, just as Ireland did in Paris last year, but however good the outcome for supporters and TV ratings, it is wrong.

Mike Miles

The World Cup countdown starts here..

World Cup Round Up

With the dust beginning to settle on the Six Nations, and every rugby fan and his dog having an opinion as to the make-up of their national side, it’s probably an appropriate time to take a stock-check as to  what has been happening off the pitch World Cup-wise.

Tickets: There was never likely to be a problem selling the vast majority of tickets for Britain’s biggest sporting event since the 2012 Olympics. In September’s ballot there were more than five million applications for the 950,000 which were ultimately snapped up, easily a Rugby World Cup record.

There were 650,000 applications for England’s Pool A clash with Australia, and 500,000 for the Twickenham final. However, other matches and venues have proved a much harder sell, particularly those in Leicester, a stronghold of English rugby, which has not responded well to Welford Road being snubbed as a venue or the quality of the three matches it has been offered. Tickets for all three matches at the King Power Stadium are still available, including some for £35 for Canada against Romania.

Doubt has also been cast on the wisdom of allowing Wales to virtually co-host the tournament, with half of the eight games at the Millennium Stadium still unsold, including Wales v Uruguay. France v Italy at Twickenham, Ireland v Romania at Wembley, and Samoa v Scotland at St. James’ Park also still boast availability.

Tens if not hundreds of thousands of tickets for other matches will also come online from the end of March through hand-backs from sponsors, and via the official face-value resale platform.

There is also the secondary market, although exploiting that avenue breaches ticketing terms and conditions and stadiums reserve the right to turn away anyone in possession of such a ticket. One for the final was recently available on a secondary site for £59,000 – more than 80 times face value.

Transport and Security: Ensuring the safety of those attending matches is the top priority of any tournament organiser. The Olympics proved Britain could manage that in an era of international terrorism, although World Cup chiefs will be determined to avoid a repeat of the security debacle which led to the armed forces being called in as cover pre-Games.

Security of organisers’ transport plans has focussed largely on Twickenham, where most of the group games will kick off at 8pm-an unusual time for a Test match there. Getting people to and from the stadium quickly has not been helped by legal challenges to plans to revamp Twickenham station, which will not be complete before the tournament.

However, getting home via rail has been made far easier during the past year; while there will be increased capacity to and from the station on World Cup match days. There will also be a post-match bus service into Waterloo direct from the stadium.

One of the biggest fusses was caused by the commandeering of car parks around the ground for hospitality tents, spelling the end of car-boot picnics next to the West Stand. There will instead be park-and-ride services from Whitton and Kempton Park. The A316 near the stadium will be partially closed on match days to allow for improved access.

National Engagement: World Rugby’s demand of an £80million fee for the right to stage the tournament meant organisers had no choice but to snub several traditional rugby grounds in favour of large-capacity football stadiums to generate the necessary revenue. It has also made for a southern-centric and London-centric event, with Twickenham, the Millennium Stadium, Wembley and the Olympic Stadium hosting more than half of the 48 matches between them.

Old Trafford pulling out of staging games hardly helped organisers fulfil their commitment to take the World Cup beyond its traditional heartlands. Only one match will be played in the north-West (England v Uruguay at the Etihad Stadium) with just five more at St James’ Park and Elland Road.

Fan zones will therefore be crucial in making people feel they are a key part of a nationwide festival of rugby. Visiting teams can also help enthuse communities in which they are based. Organisers are no doubt hoping the Trophy Tour, the UK leg of which begins on June 10, has the same galvanising effect on the country as the 2012 Torch Relay. The Webb Ellis Cup will travel the length and breadth of Great Britain ahead of the September 18 kick-off.

However, unlike the Olympics, the Rugby World Cup will have to compete with Premier League and Champions League football for attention.

Legacy: The Olympics proved that simply putting on a major event was no guarantee of a sporting legacy and the Rugby Football Union has even less excuse for failing to capitalise on the tournament to get more people playing, coaching and officiating. Concrete plans have long been in place and pre-tournament targets appear to be being met.

But getting those spectators who are experiencing the sport for the first time to stick with it will be another major challenge, particularly as many of those who have bought tickets would be classed as novices.

Rugby’s rules can be impenetrable even for the initiated but understanding the difference between “offside” and “going in from the side”, and even why these are offences is certain to bamboozle those trying to make sense of a game with a plethora of arcane rules and practices. Yet care must be taken not to insult the intelligence of those steeped in the game by going overboard in explaining the sport’s every nuance.

Mike Miles