Time for a European Super League?

There is never a dull moment with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal, not least his wheeze that his club should leave the Top14 and join the Aviva Premiership. Most commentators appear to have dismissed this notion out of hand, but his suggestion could be the thin end of the wedge.

For there are some who would undoubtedly prefer a European Super League to the current national league set-ups, and , with the European Champions Cup proving, so far , not to be the pot of gold promised a few years ago, there is bound to be a serious proposal to that effect.

The Irish in their glory days might have gone for it, as might some of the wealthier French clubs, and no doubt one or two Premiership clubs could be tempted by the idea.

But just imagine what that would mean for English fans. Week after week we now have derbies that stir up old enmities that have existed in some cases for more than a century, and then on a few weekends each season the European competitions offer the chance to see how other countries play their rugby.

All of that would change if ever there was a European League, and I suspect anyone who advocates such a move doesn’t care an awful lot about the fans. It would effectively end travelling support, and the character of the game would be irrevocably changed for the worse.

That is already the Super Rugby route, where television money is what really matters, and gate receipts are an ever-decreasing proportion of a team’s total revenue.

There is a natural parallel with football, where the most powerful clubs are steadily trying to wrest power away from the central organising body UEFA. Their obsession is with money and it is dividing the game into the elite clubs and the rest.

The worrying signs are that rugby is going the same way, and that must be a worry.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

Back from the brink

Richmond 16 Jersey 41 – Saturday 3rd September 2016 – Richmond Athletic Ground
Apparently there were 47,029 at the London Double Header at Twickenham on Saturday. There were somewhat fewer – 893 – at the Richmond Athletic Ground to see Richmond take on Jersey on the season’s opener of the rather grandly named Greene King IPA Championship.

It was quite an achievement for Richmond even to be competing at this level, for the story of Richmond RFC in recent years reads as one of the most eye-catching comebacks in any sport.
When rugby union went professional in 1995 Richmond were a third division club. They were bought by financial markets trader Ashley Levett, who turned them into a professional team and imported some big names via his cheque book. Ben Clarke from Bath was the first £1million rugby signing. The club even switched grounds to the Madejski in Reading.

By 1999 Levett had had enough of watching his money disappear and got out, virtually overnight. The professional Richmond club and London Scottish were both forcibly merged into London Irish. This period of considerable uncertainty resulted in many of the professional players leaving the club pre-merger. And so the amateur club was reformed in 2000, and they joined the leagues as an amateur club at the bottom of the pyramid. The club climbed through the leagues until the end of the 2015 /16 season, when they achieved a further promotion into the Greene King IPA Championship.

However, they start 2016/17 as most pundits favourites for relegation. All the players are part-time, and survival is the number one aim. But their captain, Will Warden, has been quoted as saying: “I’m not scared of going out and losing 22 games. I’m scared of going out there and losing the club we have got.”

Richmond began their campaign at home to Jersey, a club content it seems to dwell in mid-table safety. So a 41-16 reversal at home might point to a tough season for Richmond. The London side held their own in the first half but could not force a way over the Jersey line. Rob Kirby’s three penalties were all they had to show for their efforts, while Jersey made the best of the little possession they had with two tries. Richmond trailed only 10-9 at the break, but Jersey were far more accurate in the second half and five more tries sealed a bonus-point win.

Richmond boss Steve Hill was adamant his side belonged in tier two. “We were very competitive and we didn’t look like we shouldn’t be in this league “he said afterwards.

But you do wonder if by staying semi-professional Richmond have already condemned themselves to an early return to National league 1.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

Pro12 – Stop Whinging

I was interested to hear Former Welsh captain Martyn Williams speak out about the Champions Cup qualification rules. Williams’ gripe was that Cardiff had finished seventh in the Pro12, but lost out to Zebre as these has to be one team from each of the Pro12 countries, irrespective of their final league standing.

I savoured the delicious irony. Williams is on the money when he says the top seven should qualify, irrespective of which nation they’re from. But not many Celts were saying this in the days of the Heineken Cup with its convoluted and loaded qualification rules!

The Celtic nations fought tooth and nail for two years to keep their virtually automatic places, and were only dragged into line when the clubs being discriminated against – the French and the English – finally stood up to their bullying.

The fact is that the Italian clubs weaken the European Champions Cup by their very presence. Every other team must pray that they’ll get the Italians in their pool.

Even after two seasons of the new competition, the Pro12 hasn’t yet embraced the idea that leagues should be genuine meritocracies, where the best teams come out on top, and earn the biggest rewards.

Pro12 organisers should be beating a path to the Swiss door of European Professional Club Rugby, saying that they got it wrong when the Champions Cup was set up, and now want their top seven clubs to qualify by right.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

Relegation has to be sacrosanct

For London Irish the time is nigh. The theme of whether relegation is a positive or not has been raised far less than usual this season, one suspects in part because goings on at the other end of the table have been more interesting than usual.

Yet the irritation at the way the potential promoted club has to undergo a strict and lengthy facility audit at the same time as all the other Premiership clubs are busying themselves with squad-strengthening is still evident.

Of the four clubs taking part in the championship play-offs only Bedford are not interested in redeveloping or upgrading their Goldington Road ground. There are some sound developmental arguments for the audit, but this should be performed at the start of the year, not at the business end of the season, thus at least allowing a fairer playing field for the new elite team, rather than from a sometime indiscriminate moment in June when all the available playing talent has already been snapped up.

It is going to be difficult next season for most of the clubs in the Championship, but rather than going on about the drawbacks of a system that allows those outside the elite to dream, should not attention be paid to investing some of the extra money pouring into the top flight  into making the Championship fit for the purpose of a principle that is enshrined in the agreement between Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Football Union. A new improved financial deal between the two parties will shortly be unveiled but more needs to be done to boost the Championship, many of whose clubs are right up against it financially.

One look at the faces of the London Irish players at the final whistle against Harlequins on Saturday was reason enough to tell you why promotion and relegation is a good thing; shattered, distraught, spent. Those raw, pained emotions of course are why we all keep coming back. It is not cruel or ghoulish to want to bear witness to such trials and tribulations. It is the essence of sport- that emotion-shredding ride along the spectrum that runs from glory to despair, from joy to sorrow, from triumph to failure. If you dismantle one by ring-fencing the Premiership, then you dilute the other one two.  The sense of desolation felt by the Exiles on Saturday evening is the mirror image of jubilation that will be the preserve of one of the high-flying Premiership elite at Twickenham at the end of this month. Do away with one and you compromise the other.

The sanctity of promotion and relegation must be upheld. That is not to say that the concept ought not to be under constant review. It is only right  that the play-off system in the Championship be scrutinised, There are commercial imperatives in play, both in the Championship and the Premiership, but play-offs in the elite league have validity because sides are weakened, and the integrity of the competition distorted, because so many players are absent during the international windows.

There is no such justification in the Championship. First-past-the-post is the only way to do that bit of business.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

More bums required on European seats

Now that the dust has settled on some exhilarating stuff in last weekend’s Champions Cup the organisers should be asking a searching question: “Where have all the fans gone?”
At the quarter-final stage five years ago heavy support was generated all round – 55,000 in Barcelona, 49,762 in Dublin, 32,052 in San Sebastian and 21,309 in Milton Keynes, adding up to almost 160,000. This season’s total of 68,122 therefore represented a drop of 60 per cent.
I watched both semi-finals on television and the most telling image was the empty spaces at the Madejski Stadium and the City Ground in Nottingham. The aggregate total for the two games was 38,968. These are not figures that speak of a competition in the rudest of health. The aggregate attendance for last season’s semi-finals in St Etienne and Marseille was almost 77,000.

After all the only team that had to travel any real distance were Racing, and it is simply not good enough to plead that the likes of Saracens or even Wasps despite their Ricoh upturn in support, do not draw big numbers. Leicester Tigers are not regular visitors to European semi-finals but it seems many of the Welford Road regulars could not be bothered to travel the few miles to Nottingham. The last time Leicester played a semi-final at the city Ground, in 2002, they attracted a crowd of 29,849.

The absence of the well-supported Irish sides Munster, Leinster and Ulster is one factor in the decline. But there have been recurrent issues with knockout attendances involving Saracens as the home side. In both 2013 and 2014 their semi-finals at Twickenham were played in a stadium two-thirds empty, in contrast to last season’s vibrant occasion at St Etienne’s Stade Geoffroy Guichard when Clermont Auvergne’s “yellow army” turned up en noisy masse.
But then 80,000 turned up to watch Saracens at Wembley the other week. So how come? Saracens plan over a 12-month period for their Wembley outing, and pricing is a key part of the jigsaw they put together. Surely better to sell at a reduced cost. It is not the rugby product that is the issue; it is the pricing, with a range of £17.50 to £60 coming in at around £40 a ticket for the European semis.
If pricing and marketing is one failure another is timing. In the fractious talks that preceded the forming of the new competition there was pressure from the English and French clubs to free up the calendar at the end of May so that the climax of the domestic season, particularly in France, would hold centre stage.
The squeeze came in Europe. The final itself was even earlier last season, May 2 at Twickenham, and although it has been pushed into a more appropriate slot this season, May 14 in Lyon, the two-week turnaround between the quarters and the semi has not worked. The most difficult game to sell in the entire competition is a semi-final package at neutral venues. A 14-day window is ridiculously restricted.
The organisers are under pressure to deliver profits back to the clubs who now own and run the competition. They need to sacrifice any short-term gain for long-term commitment from the public to this competition.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

Bums on European seats wanted…

So how did that happen? Three Premiership sides in the last four of the major European rugby club competition for only the second time in history, with two semi-finals on English soil to come and the distinct possibility of an all-English final in Lyons next month. Be honest. How many predicted any of this last October when England were being unceremoniously dumped out of their own Rugby World Cup at the group stage.

This Saturday around 80,000 people are expected to pack Wembley for the Premiership fixture between Saracens and Harlequins. Yet a gate of 8,050 to see Sarries overcome Northampton Saints in their quarter-final at Allianz Park last weekend made it the worst-attended European quarter-final since Stade Francais hosted Pau 15 years ago – and it beats that by a mere 50.

Apparently Saracens had planning permission to supply the necessary 15,000 seats for a quarter-final venue, but as it became clear their normal capacity of 10,000 was not going to be required, EPCR sensibly absolved them of the expense of extending their ground. Northampton were even said to have returned all but 600 of their 3,500 ticket allocation.

It is concerning that two old rivals competing in a major European competition and separated by only 60 miles of M1 could fail to fill a modestly sized stadium for a match as big as this – and a little depressing. There would appear to be some marketing and promotional lessons in there somewhere.

Meanwhile, around 5,000 empty seats were on display as Leicester thumped Stade Francais at Welford Road, and the Ricoh Arena was around 9,000 bums short of a sell-out for the epic match between Wasps and Exeter.

It may have been one of the busiest sporting weekends of the year and therefore fans’ attentions were somewhat divided. But something seems amiss when top-drawer knock-out European rugby fails to sell out.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

Is Nigel Wray the new Ken Bates?

I was chatting with a Chelsea-supporting friend of mine as to which Premiership football clubs are kindred spirits with Premiership rugby clubs. Chelsea seemed an obvious link with Saracens. Both clubs have experienced recent success, though it is fair to say neither has been particularly popular outside their own supporters groups. One reason for this is that both have achieved success by splashing the cash, much of it, in the case of Saracens, allegedly “under the carpet”.
Both clubs have had chairmen who are, shall we say, not averse to coming forward with the odd strong opinion or two. I wouldn’t want to stretch the comparisons between Ken Bates and Nigel Wray too far (their lawyers might even read this) but certainly both men are famous for their provocative programme notes.
Nigel Wray wrote in his programme notes for the Exeter Chiefs game last weekend about losing key players to England while having to continue playing league matches. (Not a scenario admittedly with which Ken Bates had to deal for most of his reign).
Wray wants the rugby calendar to be changed so that the clubs and England play at different times. He described the current system, whereby Aviva Premiership clubs lose their international players for three months every season, an “absolute nonsense.” Saracens had gone into the New Year unbeaten, but welcomed back their international players after a Six Nations run of three victories in seven matches.
“Professional rugby dawned 20 years ago and we still behave as if the game is amateur,” wrote Wray in his programme notes. “While it was a matter of pride to sit in Paris last Saturday and watch Saracens guys deservedly claim most of the awards, we are still left with the absolute nonsense that the Premiership clubs are giving their players to England to compete with them on the same day. Imagine saying to Arsenal and Chelsea you have to play the next 10 matches without eight top players.”

His solution was to reorganise the season so that the Premiership is played at different times to internationals. The play-off system does, to a certain extent, allow the top clubs to catch up at the end of the season but it is an unscientific process. And it is a fact that the clubs and owners have been responsible for making professionalism work, and had it not been for them it might have been still-born, in England at least.
The problem with Wray’s comments is that they do not contain a definitive solution. Does he mean a global rugby calendar? The relative climates of the two hemispheres mean that the sensible change is for the northern hemisphere to move its season to the summer. Would the Six Nations survive such a change?
Does he mean a European super league? This would increase the standard of competition, but without a realistic and rigorously policed salary cap, such a league would rapidly become a playground for the rich only – presumably to include Saracens and their South African backers.
But there are many reasons not to trust those in charge of the European club game, whose interests and those of their respective unions are not mutual and there is no practical way of making them so.
Does he mean a reduction in the number of internationals? The autumn internationals could be cut from the current four games but the battle over this would be fierce and the unions involved would complain bitterly at the loss of any of these cash cows, as I suspect would the fans who would miss the chance to see teams from outside the European enclave.

Whatever the solution there are a number of drawbacks. The most effective I believe would be to move northern hemisphere rugby to mirror its southern counterpart. Not only would this make a more coherent set of fixtures, the better weather, better playing conditions and relative lack of competition from football would be significant positives.
Nothing is likely to change any time soon, but what rugby union cannot afford to do is to think conservatively when it bothers to actually think about the future of the game.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

Knocking on the Six Nations door

So the Six Nations draws to its close, as did the European Nations’ Cup. Georgia won their ninth title in 10 years by beating their similarly unbeaten rivals Romania.
Meanwhile Italy headed to Cardiff for another heavy beating at the hands of Wales. Would Italy definitely beat the Georgians in a notional promotion/relegation play-off?
A week earlier Ireland ran in nine tries against the Italians. So once more their protected Six Nations status is up for review. But should the question really be about Italy, who have provided some magical moments over the last 17 years (and Rome remains a wonderful place to visit) and deserve their chance to shine on European rugby’s biggest stage. But then Georgia and Romania would love the opportunity to show what they can do against rugby’s big boys on a regular basis.
We saw with Argentina’s World Cup campaign last autumn that there is no substitute for regular exposure to the bigger teams, which they have gained from playing in the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship.
If the powers that be are serious about growing the world game, the Six Nations’ cosy self-appointed club must be overhauled.Conor O’Shea may well come in and oversee a swift turnaround in Italy’s fortunes. But that should not change the fact that the current state of affairs is unfair. Far better a two-group system featuring promotion and relegation, which does not just protect the interests of the current six. The Six nations’ closed-shop stance simply cannot last indefinitely.

The Six Nations committee evidently sees its responsibilities as the promoters of an event rather than the game, commerce as a priority above long-term development of European rugby, and while that remains the case England, Jones and everyone else are operating within the restrictions that it applies.
If the Six nations took a broader view it might start with bonus points, then tackle Italy-Georgia, promotion, relegation and the championship format, and then ask: how else can the game be improved?

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

Is New Jersey the promised land?

It’s probably fair to say opinions varied as to the success of the opening night of Premiership Rugby in the United States last weekend. For the record Saracens beat London Irish 26-16 but the actual result, which kept Sarries on top of the Premiership pile, and the Exiles rooted even more firmly to the bottom, seemed to be lost in the general hoopla.Mark McCafferty, Premiership Rugby’s chief executive, like all good promoters, employed a few embellishments and exaggerations to label the venture a roaring success. He called it a “great match”, which it was certainly not, and even the official attendance of 14,811, seemed to this television viewer, a few thousand ahead of reality judging by the number of empty seats.

McCafferty maintained that “It’s a start. I think everybody knows how huge a market the US is and how huge a sports market it is.”

This was the first in a three –year agreement to stage matches at the Red Bull Arena in New Jersey, though whether London Irish are involved in the fixture next year remains to be seen, as they sit eight points adrift of safety with only six games to play.

Admittedly, the timing could have been better. It was not just that this historic occasion clashed with a moderately interesting fixture between England and Wales. The call last week by 70 “experts” for tackling to be outlawed in schools attracted plenty of debate and inevitable ridicule. But what cannot be so quickly brushed aside is the increasing number of so-called “soccer moms” in the States, parents afraid of the potential physical harm to Bradley junior from their playing American football. No doubt one of the most popular questions asked of the Premiership visitors was “Where are your helmets guys?”

Amid the usual rejoinders about American football tacklers leading with their heads with the resultant extra potential for concussions, rugby’s rulers would do well not to sound so complacent and gung ho. There are a few key areas rugby union needs to get right before it can hope to sell itself compellingly to a market already familiar with big blokes running into each other. The most obvious are the types of high hit which such players as Manu Tuilagi have made their stock-in-trade.

The England player James Haskell pointed out that teaching young kids the correct tackling technique at the right age is absolutely fundamental. And herein surely lies the key to exporting rugby union to the US. Back in the day the round ball game was introduced on premise of the likes of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer looking for a pension. Eventually, the professional game withered and died. There was a recognition that the sport would only take root if the native younger generation took it up at school level, and this tied in nicely with the “soccer mum” phenomenon. So would a new sport built around physical content encourage those same soccer moms to steer Bradley junior towards that muscular new sport on the block? 

Mike Miles 

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

Friday Night Likes?

I was one of the several millions in front of their T.V. set last Friday night watching a less than enthralling match between hosts Wales and France in Cardiff. Wales seem to have drawn the wrong end of the TV straw when it comes to hosting Friday evening games.  Last week’s was the sixth Six Nations Friday night match, the fifth in Cardiff, and Wales have featured in all six. The Principality Stadium, to give it its current moniker, is unique in being located in the heart of the Welsh capital. But getting there and home is a problem, especially with the usual Friday night revelry to contend with.
Given the experiences of last autumn’s World Cup, there would appear to be no sound logistical reasons for England not taking their turn to host a Friday game. Traffic and commuting are the hurdles commonly cited with Twickenham – so that match against Fiji last September could prove to be a one-off.

Gareth Davies, chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union, told the Guardian, “We appreciate that Friday is the busiest commuter day of the week, and there have been public transport issues after matches in Cardiff.” Davies was once head of BBC Wales Sport and accepts that these fixtures are here to stay, but that other nations have to accept the load.

“Everyone has to accept that the days of all matches being played on a Saturday afternoon are gone. The television deal means matches on Fridays (and Sundays) are here to stay.”
For most of its history all Six/Five/Four Nations matches kicked off at the same time on a Saturday afternoon before broadcasters, and that means the BBC, staggered the games so all of them could be shown live. Sunday matches have been around since the 1990’s and are even less popular with travelling fans than Friday kick-offs.

But since when did the views of the fans matter? But organisers must be concerned that fans faced with Friday night hassle will decide to stay at home and watch the game on TV.
The professional protagonists on the pitch are used to playing club games at a variety of times and days of the week. Wales lock Alun Wyn Jones intimated as such when describing Friday night games as “horses for courses.”

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing ultimately,” he added. “Friday night lights can be a special thing.”

These matches are here to stay. The WRU in particular cannot afford to turn a blind eye to such a revenue stream – especially now with potential roof repairs to pay for.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk