What if Germany bothered with rugby?

Amidst the plethora of rugby internationals this autumn probably the only real shock was Ireland’s victory against New Zealand in Chicago.

Overlooked by most was the result of a game in Frankfurt where Germany defeated Uruguay 24 – 21 after trailing 15-6 at the interval.  Uruguay started the day 19th in the world rankings, seven places ahead of Germany, who won the match with the last kick of the game.

Last season, Germany avoided relegation from the top division of the European Rugby Championship, and their stated ambition is to qualify for the World Cup, in 2023 if not 2019. World Rugby is anxious for the game to take off there as it looks to widen rugby’s commercial boundaries; beating Uruguay ( who we must remember were in England’s group at last year’s World Cup) was a good start.

Could we be approaching the day when Germany and England meet in a full Test match? After all, beating England via penalties would hardly be a German first…….

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

The rugby calendar is still a mess

Amidst the plethora of internationals over recent weekends all but the most diligent rugby fan might have missed that the Anglo-Welsh Cup was being played.

The Anglo-Welsh competition (which incidentally does not even have a sponsor) may be small fry in the greater scheme of rugby things, but as a development tournament it allows clubs the chance to rest some big names and blood youngsters. ( Maro Itoje captained Saracens to the title in 2014/15).But it also has the most complicated qualifying system in rugby; there are four pools of four – but you do not actually play any sides in your pool.

Now a weekend ago we had an Anglo-Welsh competition without any Welsh clubs playing in it because there was a full programme of Guinness Pro12 matches.

So when you cannot align fallow weekends in the Aviva Premiership and the Pro 12 for such a competition (we have just had an all-Welsh round when the Premiership is on!) you do begin to worry.

Mind you, we have also had the farcical situation whereby two Welsh Pro12 derbies (and the only games where the Welsh regions can really make any money) were played without their top players because someone, somewhere, had seemingly forgotten Wales were in camp and thus were not obliged to release their players ahead of the debacle against Australia.

That test in Cardiff also threw up some uncomfortable questions, with a crowd of only 55,776. It was played outside World Rugby’s autumn window, and played purely for financial reasons. Australia of course were handsomely paid for turning up, as they will be by England on December 3, another test played outside of the window. That game will be Australia’s 15th Test of the year. They have all been played since June so they have been averaging more than one every two weeks.

Therein lies the rub. Rugby union is fast approaching a crossroads, with 2019 as its junction, and no schedule agreed thereafter. There is evidently much jockeying for position going on, much hot air being spouted (Such as New Zealand threatening to go it alone) and all the while a ridiculous schedule continues. That All Blacks game in Chicago, for all the significance of the result, being outside the window and really only about the money.

An agreed global season looks like a pipe dream quite frankly. Aligning north and south would be just as impossible as currently aligning domestic and international schedules, but there has to be some serious compromising.

Banning money-spinning autumn internationals outside the window might be a start.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

Why are England reluctant to travel north?

Welcome to the month of November when half the world’s planes seem to be stuffed with rugby players. Most have no choice if they wish to pursue their chosen trade. Ireland and New Zealand were in Chicago while Australia and South Africa were in London. Fiji are training in Toulouse, with England opting for a short warm-weather break in Portugal. There are almost as many gumshields passing through departure lounges as giant Toblerones.

There is good reason for this hyperactivity. The game is increasingly global and spreading the gospel can be lucrative. The All Blacks were not in the States purely for the fresh Illinois air and Argentina did not stage their Rugby Championship Test against Australia at Twickenham last month because of the local tango-dancing scene. Beyond the financial inducements, though, there are additional benefits: a change of scene can eradicate staleness and complacency and create unexpected new friendships.

Last season’s Top 14 final in Barcelona was a case in point. It was shifted to Catalonia only because French stadiums were being used for the European football championship but the staggering attendance and vivid atmosphere made every continental administrator sit up and take notice.

Which brings us back, not for the first time, to the Rugby Football Union’s narrower horizons. Aside from one short hop across the Irish Sea to Dublin next March, their flight to Portugal is the only time the majority of England’s senior squad will have to board a flight on international business between now and next June. With just about everything the RFU organises occurring in the Home Counties, a valid driving licence and an Oyster card are pretty much the only requirements.

Once again all four England internationals this autumn will take place at Twickenham on successive Saturdays. Financially, the schedule stacks up nicely. Four 80,000-plus attendances, in addition to all the associated corporate hospitality benefits and huge bar profits, will clearly swell the coffers more than taking the odd home Test fixture out on the road.

But hang on. This is a union which has just posted revenues of £407.1m, with record profits for rugby investment of £102.3m. Admittedly a large chunk of that was a consequence of staging the 2015 World Cup but the RFU is far wealthier than any other union. Where it has been less obviously successful is in raising the profile of rugby union in the north of England, a recurring issue that does little to promote the 15-a-side code as a truly national sport.

It can be easy, and somewhat misleading, to dismiss English rugby league as a game played in just a few northern counties. But what about the latest England senior rugby union team? Before josh Beaumont was called in as an injury replacement, only one member of the 33-strong training squad currently plays for a northern club. Sale’s Mike Haley is that rarest of comets, a northern resident who has caught Twickenham’s attention. None of the other 32 lives north of Leicestershire. Before last autumn’s dead rubber against Uruguay, England had hosted one full international in Manchester since 1897.

With Ian Ritchie as chief executive and another northerner, Andy Cosslett, recently sworn in as the RFU’s new chairman, it is not as if there is a lack of appreciation inside Twickenham that the world does not stop at Watford Gap services. Apparently there remains a continuing desire for representative teams to play at northern venues but, crucially, not the senior XV.

It is not good enough. Where would English football be without strong northern clubs? How insular would English cricket look if it did not stage a single Test or one-day international north of the River Trent? How does English rugby union plan to enthuse youngsters and their families from Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumbria if it gives league a largely unopposed head start? Is it entirely a coincidence that northern lads – Chris Ashton, Sam Burgess, and David Strettle – seem increasingly more comfortable with the idea of playing abroad than sticking around in English union. Or that the two main northern cogs in England’s backline – Owen Farrell and George Ford – gravitated towards union largely because their fathers took coaching jobs down south? Tommy Taylor and Danny Care bring the total number of northern-born players in Portugal to a measly half dozen.

Maybe it is idealistic to think that playing a Test match against Fiji – or Australia come to that – in Leeds or Manchester would directly assist England in winning the 2019 World Cup. Maybe the RFU’s profits would be affected. Maybe it would be less convenient for Eddie Jones to train his players beside the seaside in Blackpool or Bridlington than in Brighton or Brown’s sporting academy in Portugal. But New Zealand train and play at venues all around their country and it does not hinder their national team – the opposite, in fact. Sticking to convention and doing what you always do is no way to run or grow a sport, let alone deliver a truly national side. England do not even have to board a plane to locate fresh new frontiers.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

The Italian Job

The Pro12 is probably the model that Scottish Football wants but will simply never happen. It has long been the belief that Wales, Scotland and Ireland can’t support a commercially viable domestic rugby league and so the creation of the Pro12 league, and the concept of provincial rather club sides, has kept rugby alive with competitive games, local derbies and the ability for the provinces to market themselves to sponsors and fans alike. Just this week, for the umpteenth time, the prospect of Celtic and Rangers joining a “cross border” competition was muted, although in this instance it would be with Scandinavian and Dutch sides rather than the English. The Scandinavians used to have their own “Royal League” played in the winter months for a number of seasons until 2007.
The Pro12 was formed back in 2001 as the Celtic League with the Italian sides of Zebre and Benetton Treviso added a few years ago to give the competition a real continental flavour although you cannot look to far every season from the likes of Leinster and Munster for the title – in fact the four Irish provinces have won nine of the fifteen titles.  

Up here in Scotland Glasgow Warriors have claimed the title just once, back in 2015, whilst Edinburgh’s last season where they were in contention for the Pro12 title came in 2009 when they finished second. In the last six seasons their highest finish has been 8th, hardly a position that befits a club of their stature.

This season they have started off in much the same vein, losing four of their opening six games prior to the game against Zebre. However, they did start the game against the Italian’s Zebre, off the back of two wins in the European Challenge Cup including last week’s 36-35 win over Harlequins.

Bar the two Italian sides and strangely eventual champions Connacht, Edinburgh are the poorest supported team in the Pro12 with an average last season of just 5,483 rattling around the 67,800 capacity Murrayfield stadium, the biggest ground used in the league. The stadium did host the third biggest league game of last season when Glasgow Warriors visited at Christmas with over 23,000 watching that game. One interesting feature of the ground on match-days is the use of pitch-side standing, with fans able to stand almost on the touchline to watch the game.

Zebre’s record in the competition hasn’t yet given many hope that the Italian teams can compete at this level. They’ve finished in last place in every season they have played in the competition so far bar last season when Benetton Treviso finished below them and arrived in Scotland pointless from the opening five games. The lush and fertile lands around Parma are hardly a hot-bed of rugby, underlined by modest crowds at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi. But you cannot deny the spirit they put into every game, which once in a while provides an upset and justifies why they should still be part of the tournament. They had lost on their last four visits to Edinburgh and hadn’t scored a point at Murrayfield since November 2013.

Edinburgh 14 Zebre 19 – Murrayfield – Friday 28th October 2016

With twenty minutes played in the game, the Italians led 3-0, scoring with the only kickable penalty of the game from Canna in the 4th minute. Whilst Edinburgh dominated possession after that kick, poor handling and decision making let them down. The Italians doubled their lead in the 25th minute after Canna converts another penalty from in front of the posts after Edinburgh transgress at the scrum. With the last kick of the half the Italians added another three points, with Canna completing a hatrick of kicks, this time from a drop goal in front of the posts. Not a half to remember for the players, officials and fans of Edinburgh Rugby.

Edinburgh certainly came out fired up for the second half and should have scored the first try of the evening in the first thirty seconds but prop Allan Dell knocked on with the line just a yard away. With a lone piper playing Scotland the Brave, the crowd started to make some noise for the first time in the evening, sensing that the tide was turning. Alas the Italians, and that man Canna, scored another three points with a straight forward penalty in the 50th minute to make it 12-0. Two minutes later Canna had a chance to add another three points but pulled his kick wide.

It needed something special to get the home side back in the game. With twenty minutes to go they kicked a penalty to the corner, and from the resultant maul, drove over to finally score, substitute Ros Ford being credited with the try and Blair Kinghorn converting. 7-12 with twenty minutes to play.

Finally Edinburgh appeared to have woken up and pressed forward, scoring again on what must have been the 20th phase of play in the 67th minute to give the home side the lead for the first time in the match, Murray McCallum going over from close range and Sam Hidalgo-Clyde converting.

But there was to be late drama and heartache in the game for Edinburgh. Less than two minutes were on the clock when Zebre broke down the left after intercepting a wayward pass and a neat ball inside saw two Edinburgh men taken out of the game and Giovanbattista Venditti went over to score, whilst Canna added another successful conversion to give the Italians the win 19-14.

This was the Italian’s first ever win in the Pro12 League and it was fully deserved. The Edinburgh fans went into the night wondering what happened to the team from seven days ago that beat Harlequins. Duncan Hodge now has a week to prepare for the visit of Ulster, where another defeat will end any hope of being in the mix for the top spots despite the season only being a third of the way through.

Rugby Union should be wary of following Football into financial fantasy land

As English football struggles to find its way through the clouds blown up by the Sam Allardyce affair,  it is perhaps as well for rugby union that there is barely a transfer market to speak of and no scope for third party ownership.

Football is awash with money, but it is not the root of all evil. The salaries of some Premier League managers exceed the salary cap in the Aviva Premiership, and while there was a whiff of scandal last year with allegations of cap irregularities investigated and buried, there is far from a financial surfeit at the top level.

Leicester Tigers chief executive Simon Cohen is already warning that the premiership salary cap is at a dangerously high level. For there is now a clear dividing line in the Premiership between those clubs, such as Leicester, Gloucester, Northampton and Harlequins and Sale who spend what they earn and others such as Saracens and Bath, who have loaded backers, and Wasps, who raised £35m through a bond scheme.

Cohen’s point, which contained the implicit message that clubs trying to live within their means were being forced to keep up with those prepared to carry debt, was that wage inflation had reached a level where all players, whether top internationals or rank and file, were earning considerably more than a few years ago and that squad sizes were, as a consequence, shrinking.

“Smaller squads are detrimental to player welfare,” he said. “Players will play more matches in a sport that is becoming quicker and faster with bigger hits coming in all the time. I think the salary cap is at a point where it will be dangerous for the game if it goes higher. Spending on players is going up from £60m to £80m this season and a huge amount of revenue that could have gone into stands, community projects and developing the game, has gone straight into the pockets of players at a time when it is becoming much, much harder to fund the salary cap.”

At least the Premiership has a fixed cap which every club has to adhere to. It is different in the Pro12 where most of the sides are funded directly by their unions. The Welsh regions have a salary limit of £4.5m which is less than their rivals in other countries, but they have some relief in the form of national player contracts which means the Welsh Rugby Union pays the bulk of the wages of the (relatively few) players concerned.

In France, the cap is £10m, although there are ways to extend it, as Racing 92 are doing with Dan Carter and Toulon did with Jonny Wilkinson, and bonuses are allowed on top of the cap as long as they do not exceed 10% of it. It is rigorously, and transparently, policed as Toulon found out last season when fined for breaching the bonus limit, an affront the club’s owner Mourad Boudjellal, who is still sore enough to question whether he wants to remain in the game.

Clubs in England and France have in the past couple of seasons enjoyed a substantial increase in revenue due to television and sponsorship deals. Cohen’s contention is that, like football where the Premier League has had an explosion in income since Sky was joined in the rights’ pursuit by BT, the extra money goes on wages with little filtering its way into improved facilities, investment or subsidising costs borne by supporters. It is to football’s( the round ball variety) shame that despite all 20 Premier League clubs being on European football’s rich list, they make players and managers multi-millionaires while expecting supporters to, at best, cough up as much as before.

The more they have, the more they spend to the point where they are no better off. If the bubble bursts, supporters will not switch allegiances like players and will be the ones counting the cost.

Rugby union remains a sport where interaction with paying supporters remains important. It was not that long ago that Leicester were among the clubs lobbying for a rise in the salary cap to help English clubs compete with the French and Irish in Europe: the best supported club in the country had the means to fund the increase, but others now have greater spending power through debts that are guaranteed.

Premiership Rugby did not enjoy its finest hour last year when revealing the outcome of the salary cap investigation into whether certain, unnamed clubs had exploited a loophole or two. It seemed to be a case of “we know who it is, and if they do it again, there may be trouble.” It says it has tightened up procedures, but supporters are entitled to transparency on a French level.

Clubs in France are often mocked for their spending, but anyone who either exceeds the cap or fails to provide the means to pay the budget it declared at the start of a season is punished severely; relegation in the case of the latter.

Financial fair play in England would be a start to ensure that clubs bankrolled by debt do not threaten the financial models of those who balance the books. The salary cap has reached its sustainable level for the near future and as recent events in football have shown, rugby needs to keep in contact with its roots, not unreality.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

Puma’s follow the money

When the Sex Pistols reformed in 1996 they offered no pretence as to why, naming their comeback the “Filthy Lucre” tour.

On Saturday evening just under 50,000 people watched Argentina lose to Australia in the Southern hemisphere Rugby Championship. The game was played at Twickenham Stadium, London, England.

When Australia last played Argentina away the game was staged in Mendoza in front of 25,000. When the two sides met in Perth last month fewer than 17,000 turned up. The last four matches between Australia and Argentina in the tournament have been watched by fewer than 72,000 spectators.

Argentina may have been a bit more delicate than the Sex Pistols about their decision to sacrifice home advantage and play Australia at Twickenham, but it all adds up to the same thing – money.

With Sanzar’s desire to have the income generated by Test matches between tier one nations pooled, including Lions tours, understandably not generating much support in Europe, Saturday could be seen as a foretaste of matches to come.

On hearing that Argentina would be playing Argentina at Twickenham, England’s Ben Young‘s reaction was: “I couldn’t imagine going to Melbourne to play a test against Ireland.” But the point is England have no need to leave Twickenham to attract a big crowd.

New Zealand have already played Australia in Hong Kong and will take on Ireland in Chicago this autumn as part of their bid to tap into new markets and broaden their commercial base. England’s advice to the World Champions was to build a new, suitably large, stadium rather than take tests around a country that is made up of two islands – an attitude that suggests the R.F.U. is not too bothered about how their supporters in the northern part of the country manage to get to Twickenham and back up to six or seven times a year. Ian Ritchie, the RFU chief executive, refuses even to countenance a match in the north of England, never mind North America.

If England laugh at the suggestion Test match income should be pooled, how would they react to a request by New Zealand to play a match at Twickenham? By demanding a high rental fee probably. But if the friendly international calendar changes after 2019 so that neither hemisphere has to embark on an end-of-season tour, then end of August into September could become the window for what are now the autumn and summer series, blending the two into one. The All Blacks could play England at Twickenham on consecutive weekends, or Wales in Cardiff or France in Paris, away in the first and home in the second, thereby banking far more than they would for a match at Eden Park

Club borders are already expanding. The Aviva Premiership ventured into the United States last season when London Irish played Saracens in New Jersey. The French Top14 played its final last year at the Nou Camp in Barcelona in front of a full house.

Players have moved from the south to the north in ever growing numbers in the professional era, following the money just as their countries now are. Oregan Hoskins, the former president of South African Rugby, said recently that he believed South Africa should leave Sanzar (and therefore Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship) and link up with the European unions, taking advantage of the same time zone. He is speaking against a backdrop in his country of falling gates, fewer television viewers and the loss of sponsors.

The figures may mean that South Africa heed Hopkins’s advice and act out of self-interest rather than solidarity. If he had floated his idea a generation ago, when the south was the powerhouse of the game on the field and in the bank he would have been laughed at.  But not anymore, which is why Argentina and Australia, two countries not in Europe’s time zone were playing in London on the money trail.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

Rugby Union follows football…..Oh Dear

Wasps were comfortably holding on to their 13-5 lead against Northampton last weekend, when the referee awarded the home side a penalty after Wasps’ Jimmy Gopperth gave him some verbals.At one stage his indiscretion threatened to cost his team the match, and his coach, Dai young, pointed out that while it is difficult for players not to shout at a referee in the heat of the moment, players have been made aware of the Premiership crackdown on dissent, and should not be allowed to fulminate like footballers.

In the same match Saints full back Ben Foden was clattered late by Nathan Hughes, and had a long look at the referee before writhing around in pain. He is not the first rugby player taken to rolling around on the floor after being body-checked or late tackled and then casting a beady eye on the referee or touch-judge to see if their con act has worked. Obviously it’s football’s fault, a sport long plagued by players as if they were auditioning for Swan Lake.

At the Bristol/Exeter match over the same weekend there were reports of a “skirmish” between rival fans in the South Stand at Ashton Gate. In the grand scheme of things there will be those rugby apologists who argue that it was only a flashpoint incident, and that such booze-filled altercations have been routine down the years at football grounds. And after all, Ashton Gate also hosts Bristol City, so perhaps there was something in the air.

But it ill-behoves rugby to try and claim any moral high ground up against football. Consider that we have just had Chris Ashworth’s biting incident, an act of gouging by Brive fly-half Matthieu Ugalde in France’s Top 14, reports in New Zealand of a “lewd” evening involving a Super Rugby franchise , and a young player spared jail for a vicious assault as it might impact on his developing career.

Rugby can certainly not afford to be smug.
Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

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