Mallinder’s Northampton downfall has parallels with Wenger at Arsenal

Longevity has come up short. The announcement that Arsène Wenger would leave Arsenal meant this season was the last for the longest-serving club heads in football and rugby’s premierships.
Similar to Wenger at Arsenal, Jim Mallinder at Northampton had gone from managing the champions to missing out on a place in the top four for two successive seasons, and the highly likely prospect of a third forced the Saints to sack him in December, 10 years after he was appointed their director of rugby.
If Arsenal’s decline under Wenger was gradual at first before gathering momentum, Northampton were Premiership champions in 2014 having reached their first final the year before. After wobbling for one season, they lost their balance and their struggles in the Premiership were compounded by heavy defeats in Europe: they have conceded 438 points in the Champions Cup in their last 12 group matches, an average of more than 36.

Success in football is often fashioned by finance, the richest rising to the top, although Leicester City were an exception two years ago. Wenger’s misfortune was that the £450m investment by the Arsenal absentee owner, Stan Kroenke, went into the bank accounts of shareholders, not the club’s, but the salary cap in the Premiership provides a more level field, even if it allows for a couple of marquee signings.

Northampton, like Arsenal, are trying to run a model business, investing in the playing side what they earn rather than relying on a backer. The same applies to Harlequins, who recently announced that John Kingston would stand down as Director of Rugby at the end of the campaign, ending a 17-year association with the club, most of which was spent as a coach. Another era is coming to an end.

There have been concerns that rugby union is resembling football, hiring one year and firing the next, but the top four clubs in the Premiership – Exeter, Saracens, Wasps and Newcastle – are models of stability having appointed their head coaches/directors of rugby in 2009, 2011, 2011 and 2012 respectively. Beneath them, only Sale in seventh match that, with Steve Diamond taking over in 2012.
Successful coaches and managers rarely get sacked, unless they work for Chelsea, but what defines success? Would Sale finishing sixth be as notable an achievement as Saracens regaining the title? Wenger was ridiculed for turning Arsenal from a side that competed for, and won, the title to a side content to finish in the top four, which they did for his first 20 years in charge.

By the standards of history, he was mightily successful but, judged by what he had previously achieved, he was failing – as was Mallinder at Northampton – and had to be shoved out in a downfall reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s when those she felt owed her loyalty pointed out the blindingly obvious.

Mallinder and Wenger largely relied on the same group of coaches during their reigns and became tactically stale. Alex King was brought in to rejuvenate the Saints’ attack but was cast out when the slump started. Continued success comes down to the art of regeneration, something Sir Alex Ferguson was a master of. While he remained in control at Manchester United, he regularly changed his second-in-command, bringing in a new voice as well as fresh ideas, a silversmith like no other.

Warren Gatland will have been Wales’ head coach for 12 years when he leaves the position after their involvement in next year’s World Cup ends. He has kept his management team intact throughout, tweaked only in the two years he was on sabbatical with the Lions. They last won the Six Nations title in 2013 and, like Northampton, found that tactics that delivered titles once had dated.

Wales are in a far healthier position than they were for most of the 20 years before Gatland took over, when coaches entered the Arms Park through a revolving door, and he regularly refreshes his squad, afraid to drop no one. Whoever takes over will, like Chris Boyd at Franklin’s Gardens in the summer, face a rebuilding job. A number of players who have made their mark with the Lions as well as Wales will not be around for the 2023 World Cup and there will be a stylistic shift.
New Zealand’s Steve Hansen is preparing for his fourth World Cup with the All Blacks, and second in charge, but the management team is markedly different to the one he joined in 2004. The All Blacks through the years have been not only been receptive to new ideas but pioneering, one of the few to look at the positive possibilities of law changes.

There was a time when New Zealand coaches had to sneak back home after failing to win the World Cup but only defeat to a minnow will sour Hansen’s legacy. Northampton’s supporters never had a chance to say farewell to Mallinder and, while the majority accepted the time for change had arrived, they acknowledged his achievements and viewed his departure with sorrow rather than relief.
It is the opposite with Wenger. The mood before the match at the Emirates Stadium against West Ham, the first after the announcement, was as if a distant cousin had departed rather than a close relative. There were not enough at the ground who could remember that for most of his reign the club had never had it so consistently good. The past is a foreign country; the present tense.


Does Club Rugby need to be marketed better?

Is rugby popular, or not very popular at all? The answer is, perhaps weirdly, both.
When it comes to international rugby, cup finals, or some annual “special” games, it attracts big numbers. 55,000 fans went to Murrayfield to see Saracens beat Clermont in 2017, 74,000 watched Wales beat Scotland, 82,000 watched England beat Wales and 67,000 saw Scotland turn England over. Indeed, pretty much every international game is a sell-out.

But step away from the cup and international arena into the Premiership and it’s usually a different story.

While in 2017 crowds were up by 10% to an average of 13,833, many clubs simply don’t seem to have much pulling power, much of the time. Last year, table-topping Wasps averaged just over 15,000 in the 32,000 capacity Ricoh arena, despite the fact you would be guaranteed to see some good winning rugby. Harlequins hosted Bath at The Stoop in front of a crowd of 7,450. That is less than Notts Count’s average attendance in the fourth tier of English football.

But it is a confused picture, because when Harlequins play the annual December “Big Game” at Twickenham, over 77,000 can turn up. It’s still Premiership rugby, but it’s a special occasion housed at Twickenham and apparently this makes it irresistible.

Small crowds at some of the grounds are obviously due to limited capacity. Exeter sit atop the league with a ground that holds just 12,800. While there’s nothing worse than being in a 35,000-capacity stadium with 25,000 empty seats, a severely restricted capacity could be a self-perpetuating unpopularity. Surely a side like Exeter who are going to finish first could attract a bigger crowd. After all, fans tend to flock to winners.

It would appear there simply isn’t a strong enough club culture to draw sizeable crowds for most league games, even though the quality of these games is not significantly worse entertainment. How to explain London Irish’s average attendance being about 8-10,000 at the 24,0000-capacity Madejski but 54,000 at Twickenham for the London Double Header?

Football has a tribal loyalty that seems largely missing from rugby. It may or may not mean fans are less blinkered and one-eyed, but it also means ties to the club are perhaps not as strong. Far fewer people turn up to every game out of loyalty, or even out of mere habit.

The reason for modest (if rising) crowds must actually be both cultural and structural. The lesson from the attendance gulf between “special” games and the rest must be that to pull bigger crowds, more games must somehow be made to be special. Indeed, it is essential for this to happen if the Premiership clubs’ finances to improve.

Rugby’s Blame Game

As rugby union’s professionalism advances, and the stress on players continues to grow, only a drastic reduction in games for the elite players can avert a car crash of seismic proportions for the sport.

According to an excellent piece of research by player agency Esportif Intelligence, England’s players had played an average of almost 1,100 minutes (13.75 matches) of club rugby each this season before the start of the Six Nations in February
Figures for the other home countries were:
Ireland 700 minutes (8.75 matches)
Wales 850 minutes (10.63 matches)
Scotland 660 minutes (8.25 matches)

Even accounting for their grotesquely heavier workload than their Celtic counterparts before the tournament, it is still England’s players who are being called back to the grindstone first. On the back of a Lions summer, the effect is plain to see as England’s performances flatlined, English clubs flopped in Europe while the Aviva Premiership stagnates.

Radical thinking is required – and required soon – or Ireland, Wales (whose National Dual Contract scheme is only just beginning to bear fruit) and Scotland will continue to punch well above their collective weights when it comes to player numbers and commercial clout.
In 1995 the RFU called a moratorium on professionalism. The “old farts” at Twickenham dithered as their amateur game burned. The clubs contracted the players and England have suffered since. As professionalism advances and the stress on players continue to grow, only a drastic reduction in games for the top players can avert a car crash.

The signs are not good. Ian Ritchie, the man who presided over England’s worst ever World Cup campaign in 2015 as RFU chief executive, but was forgiven as the union wallowed in cash, was recently appointed chairman of Premiership Rugby. By all accounts a lovely bloke and decent administrator, but is he the man to deliver radical change in a sport crying out for alternative thinking? No chance!

The blame game will go on and the players will continue to suffer. But who will be to blame when the wheels really do come off?

England’s failure….blame it on…

After England’s failure at the Six Nations, finishing only above Italy, (at least no-one has pretended that it was anything but a failure) the knives have all too predictably been going in all directions. Quite a few have landed in Eddie Jones’ back, but many commentators have looked at the Irish and asked what they are doing that we’re not. The answer for many has been central contracts.

Ireland, Wales and Scotland, who finished first, second and third respectively, all use a form of central contracts. So, do New Zealand, and they’re not a bad team either.

Under the English model, the RFU effectively pays the Premiership clubs to release players called up for the national team under the terms of the Professional Game Agreement, which runs until 2024.

The advantage of central contracts is that it allows unions to control its players’ workloads and grant longer rest periods. While nine of England’s players started their season in the first weekend of September, the majority of Ireland’s contingent enjoyed an extra four weeks off. The England fly-half Owen Farrell has played 1084 minutes for Saracens this season, more than double the 435 minutes his Irish counterpart, Jonnie Sexton, has played for Leinster.

A Lions tour is a special event, but it takes much more out of the player. The last time England lost three in a row in the Six Nations was in 2006, coming after the 2005 New Zealand tour. A coincidence?

Steve Hansen, the New Zealand head coach, claimed that there is a clear difference between the energy levels of the English and Irish players. “They (Ireland) have got central contracting which allows them to maybe have a bit more control over playing time and player welfare than the countries where they don’t have that luxury” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.

But both the RFU and Premiership Rugby are adamant that the introduction of central contracts would be a non-starter, at least in the short term. Exeter Chiefs chairman Tony Rowe poured very cold water over the idea. “The RFU struggle to find the money to pay for the players they use and abuse once a year anyway” he told the Telegraph. “Central Contracts sounds great, but you can’t just cherry-pick the best players. If they want to contract our players, they would need to contract all of them and I would like to see where they are going to get the money for that from”.

But the clubs are losing, collectively, about £30 million a year. If, by some extraordinary coup, the RFU signed up the top 40 English players in the country and paid their wages, they would be saving the clubs about two-thirds of that. The RFU then has control over when and where they play. In theory, it is beautiful.

In practice though, there is a form of central contracting already. The Elite Player Squad (EPS) agreement is a contract between England and the clubs that already deals with player release and with the payment of around £2000,000 per player per year so the RFU can have some control over these lucky assets.

The first EPS agreement did not allow for player release from the clubs in the fallow weeks of the Six Nations. Now, there is also a release week before international campaigns, and an enforced break afterwards. This is central contracting lite. If England and the RFU want further control over the players then, when the next EPS contract is being negotiated, to start in 20121, the RFU should pay considerably more than £200,000 per player, and effectively buy them out of a few more club games a year. The clubs may hate losing their players, but they love the cash for which they get recompensed.

If the RFU wants to press further, it would have to pay for it. You want Daly at No. 15 for Wasps? Then pay Wasps to play him there for, say, four games a season.

There are limits though. England may want to be more Irish and completely buy up the players, but the clubs wouldn’t give it a sniff. Whoever controls the players controls the game.

Central contracting would also interfere with the sporting integrity of the Aviva Premiership. If the RFU pays the players direct, then some clubs would get international players for free, others wouldn’t. The Premiership is already lopsided enough, with Harlequins, for instance, being required to play Newcastle Falcons during the Six Nations, and therefore without a number of their best players. Central contacts would leave Quins in even less control of their assets. If the RFU wants ultimate, complete, Ireland-level control, it would have to buy up the Premiership.

As Tony Rowe would put it: “Show us your money”

Why should Players step outside their Back-Yards?

There has been much talk over many years of the benefits of British footballers plying their trade abroad. Gareth Bale is currently the exception, and there are rumours of him returning to these shores this summer

Turning to rugby union, maybe it is just a coincidence but the following among Scotland’s victorious team over England all share something in common. What is it that links Finn Russell, John Barclay, Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, Huw Jones and Gregor Townsend, not to mention Ireland’s latest man-of-the-match centre Chris Farrell? Here is a clue: all the leading modern Test coaches have also done something similar, as did England’s World Cup-winning captain, Martin Johnson.

The answer is thought-provoking: each has been fundamentally shaped by a spell outside his domestic comfort zone. The smart, forward-thinking Townsend could have remained a big fish in the Borders for his entire career; instead he sought to experience club rugby in Australia, France, England and South Africa. Before returning to Scotland Jones shot to prominence with Western Province having headed to South Africa after school with no English clubs showing any interest. Farrell played 74 games for Grenoble in France; small wonder he looked entirely at ease on an unfamiliar stage against Wales last Saturday.

Johnson, famously, represented New Zealand Colts after initially heading down to play a bit of club rugby. The man who brought him over, John Albert, had written to the Rugby Football Union asking if it could forward his contact details to their age-group players; five ended up coming to New Zealand. For Johnson it was like stepping into a parallel universe. “We picked him up at Auckland and on the drive down to Taupo he kept flinching,” Albert said later. “Every time a logging truck went past he ducked. He was petrified.” The locals, apparently, were not instantly impressed. “They weren’t all brilliant rugby players, but they were tough. They thought Martin was soft and told him to harden up.”

The rest is rugby history. A shoulder injury frustrated any prospect of New Zealand poaching Johnson – “There’s nothing surer than he would have been an All Black,” said the late Sir Colin Meads – but the big man did arrive back in the Midlands with a keener appreciation of what properly aggressive forward play looked and felt like.

It feels like an area England should be re-examining now. Dylan Hartley is another example of someone whose Kiwi upbringing has shaped his hard-nosed rugby outlook – it is probably among the reasons why Eddie Jones appointed him captain. But how many of England’s younger players have had their characters forged outside the academy system, off the beaten track, away from the protective arms of their local club? Aside from the Fiji-born Nathan Hughes and Mako Vunipola very few of Saturday’s 23 have lived or played club rugby outside England for any length of time. Joe Launchbury had a short stint as a young man in South Africa and Sam Underhill has played and studied in Wales, but the rest have predominantly learned all they know about rugby and life in their own back yards, save for tours and away games.

Contrast that with Chris Ashton, Nick Abendanon, David Strettle, Jonny Wilkinson, James Haskell and Carl Fearns, all of whom have moved to France (plus Japan and New Zealand in Haskell’s case) and enjoyed a new lease of rugby life. It is a similarly revealing story with coaches. Stuart Lancaster, Andy Farrell, Ben Ryan and Richard Cockerill can all testify to the value of operating in a foreign environment, as would Jones, Joe Schmidt, Warren Gatland, Conor O’Shea, Mike Catt and others. Of the best up-and-coming young English coaches only Steve Borthwick, Dave Walder, Alex Sanderson, Joe Worsley and Rory Teague have spent significant spells overseas.

It is an area the RFU is looking into, with talk of sabbaticals for aspiring homegrown coaches. As things stand no English players are permitted to play outside England if they wish to remain eligible for the national team. That stance clearly has its benefits but, equally, does not always foster the type of instinctive resourcefulness England needed to prosper in hostile, unfamiliar circumstances. It was also instructive to listen to Townsend, Barclay, Russell and Huw Jones after the match: all came across as impressively normal, well rounded human beings as opposed to endlessly briefed battery hens. A coincidence? Possibly not.

Football and Rugby Crowds

Why do you think a rugby crowd is so different from a football crowd? Even if it isn’t that different in demographics and profile, the spectator experience certainly is.
Basically, football fans are not trusted not to monster each other. So we’re all on CCTV in and around the ground, and the whole area around the ground is treated as a potential problem waiting to happen. Riot police and vans are everywhere. Pubs often have ‘no football colours’ statements on their doors, but none have ‘no rugby colours’. We all think we know why.

A friend was telling me of how 81,000 England and Australian fans co-existed peacefully at Twickenham in November, even though many were “clearly seven sheets to the wind”.
So, the contrast between the two sports is really remarkable. Football fans are treated like dangerous wild beasts, rugby crowds are treated like grown-ups. Although there is very little trouble at football games these days, it feels as though this is simply because of how heavily it is policed. If football supporters could be trusted to behave decently, segregation would not exist, but at no game of any size would fans not be kept apart. We are never trusted to stand shoulder to shoulder until you get down to the fifth and sixth tiers. In a supposedly civilised land, that’s simply incredible.

Of course, in football, there is a long history of violence between fans. It’s often said that rugby union is a middle-class sport and that this explains why people behave better, but I don’t believe this is true, not least because we all know a few middle-class people who are absolute rotters and behave terribly. It’s also an insult to the vast majority of decent working-class football fans who wouldn’t dream of putting a brick in someone’s face. And also, while there are some very middle-class people at the rugby – what I would call the red trouser brigade – mostly it isn’t that sort, it’s just regular people. The peaceful posho element is very overstated, as is the violent working class. I don’t believe we’re all that different.

It’s sometimes said that the aggressive on-pitch mano-a-mano nature of rugby somehow dissolves the urge for violence or aggression in the spectators. This seems a bit far-fetched as football is physical, athletic and can be aggressive too.

Others have speculated that footballers set a bad example by swearing at refs and generally throwing strops and trying to cheat all the time. That this facilitates and normalises similar behaviour amongst some fans, as players and crowd get caught into a self-feeding emotional loop. That, I feel, is getting closer to one of the core issues. Because it must largely be down to history and expectation. The totally different crowd experiences must be as a result of copying behavioural expectations and standards.

Maybe football is trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of negativity and aggression, in the same way rugby is trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of positivism and respect. It is not explainable in any other way as to why we’ve ended up with two popular sports being so divergent. I look forward to the day being in a football crowd is as enjoyable as being in a rugby crowd, and when going to and from a big game doesn’t involve skirting around metal barriers and being herded by riot police. But I’ll be honest with you, I’m not holding my breath


Hats off to the Aussies

Yes, hats off to the Aussies….

Rugby, as evidenced by many a hidden vote in a transparent process, is fond of its decidedly old-school systems and hierarchy.

But if the appointment of Raelene Castle as the Australian Rugby Union’s new CEO was considered ground-braking, the ARU’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) was little short of revolutionary.

In a cycle during which the RFU dispensed with irrelevant pleasantries such as continuing to reward handsomely those females who chose to represent the RFU with such pride, the ARU have taken a more liberal economic stance, opting for matching base pay rates for their male and female athletes and installing pregnancy policies for their females as well.

As Ms. Castle identified during the opening stage of her tenure, the “…..female market is really hot” and currently and women’s rugby is hard to ignore. The skill, fitness, intensity and rugby intelligence of the current female elite are light years ahead of where they were a decade ago. The last women’s World Cup was a pleasure to watch.

In a time when so much cash goes to so few players playing so many games. It’s refreshing to see a national union opening a wider embrace to hard-training elite athletes serving the sport.

Watch out – The Americans are coming…

A few weeks ago, Twickenham opened its doors to American Football by hosting the NFL “international series” game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Cleveland Browns. It was the fourth NFL game played in London this autumn, with the matches split between the home of English Rugby Union and Wembley. The RFU was no doubt paid a king’s ransom by the NFL for rolling out the red carpet to the American sporting invasion – and let’s hope that it is doing so with its eyes wide open.

This so-called international series is part of an NFL strategy to export its code to Europe, not least because the audience figures for the sport in the USA have been declining, and capturing a lucrative new market in Europe is a useful hedge against the dip in popularity on the other side of the Atlantic. The Americans need no lessons in sports marketing from anyone, mainly because they invented it, with major professional sports like American Football in the vanguard. What bodies like the RFU have to recognise, and quickly, is that this colonisation, far from being a friendly partnership, is a serious threat to the health of Rugby Union.

The reality is that if an NFL franchise is created in London, or relocates to it, that talented young Rugby Union players – as well as those in rugby league, athletics, and to a lesser extent football – will be at the top of their shopping list. The athletic and physical types required by Rugby Union and American Football are virtually the same, and therefore they will be fishing in the same talent pool. The NFL knows that money talks when it comes to recruitment, and that its vastly superior spending power means that the race to contract the most talented young rugby athletes could leave a country even with England’s playing numbers picked clean.

Most fans of our own oval ball code will recognise that stars like Jonny Wilkinson, Jason Robinson and Martin Johnson do not come around every generation, and that they are not easily replaced. The logical extension is that if your tier of elite talent is constantly plundered your sport is in danger of losing its profile and appeal. Players crossing over between Rugby Union and American Football are the exception rather than the rule at the moment. However, the speed with which the transition can take place is evident in the contract secured by the former England Sevens captain, Alex Gray, who secured a two-year contract with the Atlanta Falcons this summer.

At the moment there is no player drain, with those leaving to try the American code a mere trickle. Set against that we know that the financial clout of the national bodies in Rugby Union – with the RFU the wealthiest – or clubs with multimillionaire backers, are not in the same league as an organisation like the NFL. That is why if the NFL decided to target a goal-kicker of the calibre of Owen Farrell for a new London franchise, or to sign Billy Vunipola as a linebacker, the money on offer would dwarf their Rugby Union earnings.

The average NFL squad player earnings are £1.44 million – which is about half a million more than Dan Carter earns in France. However, the money that star players earn is staggering, with the brilliant New England Patriots quarter-back, Tom Brady, signing a two-year deal worth £31.2 million. However, it is more likely that the NFL will target promising Rugby Union players much earlier so that their learning curve in the new sport is gradual rather than steep – and, again, the contracts would be far more lucrative than anything Rugby Union can pay.

If this talk of an American Football invasion sounds fanciful, it is worth considering why Tottenham have installed a revolutionary retractable second pitch in their new showpiece stadium to replace White Hart Lane. That second pitch has NFL specified dimensions and turf surface, and is kept under the Spurs pitch and then raised to replace it using sophisticated hydraulic technology. This has been done as part of Tottenham signing a deal with the NFL to play two games a season on it from 2018-19. That sort of investment does not happen by accident, and nor does the number of games the NFL are playing on this side of the Atlantic.

The battle for hearts, minds and playing talents between Rugby Union and American Football may be in its infancy in this country, but it has started – and having the enemy inside your gates may not be the RFU’s best strategy.

Mike Miles

Rules are meant to be broken, aren’t they?

Evidently Rhys Webb wants to have his Welsh cake and eat it. The Ospreys and Lions scrum-half signed for Toulon earlier this month, days before the Welsh Rugby Union announced a change to its policy governing players outside the country, entrapping the 28-year old.

The new rules outline that players moving to England or France from next season would only be considered by the Wales head coach if they had reached the 60-cap threshold. As Webb is on 28, he has no chance of reaching that by next September, even with all the extra internationals Wales are fond of arranging.

Webb’s response was to say that when he agreed to join Toulon – he cannot sign a contract with the French club until January, only a pre-agreement – he did not know the full implications regarding his international career. The Wales head coach, Warren Gatland, however, said he had warned him about the potential policy change.

Webb is a player Gatland will not want to be without from next season, one year away from the World Cup. He is Wales’s first-choice scrum-half by some distance and is at the peak of a career which has been affected by injuries. With the sport taking an increasing toll on players, Toulon’s offer was one he felt he could not risk turning down.

By moving to France, he was jeopardising his international career anyway. Under the old policy, from the 2019-20 season which takes in the World Cup, Gatland would only have been able to select two wildcards in his squad, that is players based outside the country who had turned down the offer of a contract with one of Wales’s four regions.

It was because Gatland faced being without a number of senior players that the Welsh Rugby Union and the regions came up with another formula. The regions argued for 70 caps but, under Gatland’s prompting, settled on 60, the number adopted by Australia before the last World Cup.

New Zealand and Argentina do not consider any player for international rugby who is not based in the country, Ireland tend not to look beyond their own border and England will only consider exiles under exceptional circumstances: when Chris Ashton left Saracens for Toulon in the summer he knew that he was putting his Test career in limbo at best.

If it is hard on Webb, as it would be on another Lion, Ross Moriarty, if he signed a new contract with Gloucester, Wales have to keep making a stand in an attempt to galvanise the regional game which, the Scarlets aside, remains in a depressed state. The alternative is to disband the regions, move back to club rugby in the form of a semi-professional Premiership and shoo their leading players to clubs in France and England.

It is not only a Welsh problem. The top leagues in France and England enjoy a substantial turnover, boosted by the largesse of owners, even if few of them make a profit. Their resources are such that they are able to attract leading players from the southern hemisphere in large numbers, and not just those looking for a pension at the end of their careers. Even New Zealand, where the lure of the national jersey is powerful, are losing players like Aaron Cruden, Malakai Fekitoa and Charles Piutau who have years left in them.

They may not have been first-choice All Blacks, but as the Lions found when touring South Africa in 2009 and Australia in 2013, when countries lose players who are second or third in line it weakens the foundations of their professional game. The response of a number of English clubs to injury problems in the last month has been to sign players from Australia, South Africa and the Pacific Islands.

It has consequences for international rugby, as has been seen in the Rugby Championship. In every major rugby country in the world, the primacy of international rugby is not disputed, save two: England and France where the professional club game is vibrant and owners like Toulon’s Mourad Boudjellal can afford to offer players contracts that set them up financially and soften the impact of a loss of Test status.

England are the world’s richest union but, along with France, it has the most mouths to feed. It has pursued a singular policy as it increases its revenues and continues to refurbish Twickenham, refusing to consider arguments from the southern hemisphere that there should be revenue-sharing among tier one nations to ensure that countries there and in Europe are better able to hold on to players and so pay more than lip service to the primacy of international rugby.

The RFU argues that the money it earns is poured back into the English game and that to give some up would hit the grassroots. But, and Bernard Laporte, the president of the French Rugby Federation has realised this, if Test rugby becomes weakened and less of an allure there is a threat to income anyway. And what is the investment in age-group rugby worth if players are lost to the system because club places are blocked by recruits who are not qualified to play for England?

There are too many ‘foreign’ players in France and the Premiership has, at least, reached saturation point. Rugby does not have the broad appeal of football and cannot afford the likes of South Africa and Australia becoming unexceptional. Or Wales again, which is why there have to be consequences for the likes of Webb.

Could ending promotion solve English Rugby’s problems?

We could be witnessing the start of a perfect storm for English rugby:  too many clubs losing too much money, ever-increasing demands on players to the extent that strike action has been mentioned, and PRL’s latest whizz, the controversial suggestion that the domestic season should run from September through to the end of June.

PRL has said that the current limit of a maximum of 32 games during the course of a season will remain, but they’ve been light on details about how the new extended season will work. However, they have uttered the now virtually meaningless mantra that “player welfare is a priority”- no statement from any of the sport’s administrators can omit these words, but just saying them doesn’t make it happen.

But it would be entirely wrong to cast the clubs as some Victorian employer, flogging the players to breaking point, because they are businesses like any other, trying to become income sustainable. Well, some of them are, although the lack of action from the game’s authorities to curb reckless spending and ridiculous losses from a few bank-rolled clubs is nigh on obscene.

So perhaps we should get rid of promotion and relegation, and move to a 14-team Premiership. That will generate more revenue for the clubs, and with four extra week-ends, presumably even more revenue from the broadcasters. However, the only way that will work is if the additional cash is spent on adding more players to the clubs’ squads. Currently most clubs’ senior squads contain between 40-45 players, with the Academy numbers on top, and that needs to increase to between 50 and 55, enabling players to be better managed, with rest periods built in. PRL’s proposal for a ten-month club season, equating to 11 months for international players, seems to end the of pre-season as we know it. Yet, the medics believe that a proper pre-season is essential to assist recovery, and then to prepare for the demands of the coming season.

The Championship is the most obvious source of additional players, and that would solve another problem. The limit of most of the Championship sides’ ambition is to avoid relegation to National League 1. Barring Bristol and Yorkshire Carnegie, it is a league designed to entertain local fans.

The players, and their agents, have a role to play in this too. Billy Vunipola has said that he would consider a pay cut if he had to play fewer games. It’s time to test the waters: would other players take a pay cut if they were limited to the equivalent of say, 30 games a season? With 26 Premiership games, plus the play-offs, and between six and nine European ties, the season would have between 32 and 37 possible matches for “journeymen” players, with another possible dozen international matches for the elite. Hence the need for much bigger squad sizes.

The question is, would the clubs commit to managing their star players to stick within a lower limit of games, or the number of minutes played in a season, and would fans tolerate not seeing their clubs’ best players for as many as half of the league fixtures? It requires the most unlikely scenario imaginable, the clubs in the guise of PRL, the RFU, and the players, all working together to protect the future of the professional game. It’s in everyone’s interest to do this, because the financial state of some Premiership clubs is parlous.

The clubs need to remember that without their players there isn’t a league, or a future for their businesses, and the players need to understand that if a few clubs went to the wall, the whole house of cards would fall, with a devastating effect on their salaries. Mutual self-interest needs to come to the fore and the long term will have to be prioritised ahead of short term interest.

Mike Miles