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.

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Rugby needs to learn the right lessons from football

Colin Boag is a regular columnist in The Rugby Paper, and I usually find him worth reading. However, he is one of those rugby writers who like to blame all rugby’s ills on football. He was at it again in a recent column. He was writing about players’ attempts to get others booked, and predictably enough, he saw it as “just another example of rugby starting to ape football.”

Ben Kay is a rugby analyst I would rank alongside Gary Neville on the round-ball game. But a recent column in The Times, was headed “It’s crucial rugby wins the battle that football has lost.”  The battle he was referring to was simulation, and came shortly after Alexis Sanchez was hit on the shoulder by a ball and then made a delayed, exaggerated dive in a bid to con the referee.

Kay claims to love football as much as rugby , and his column was intended, not to knock football, a la Boag, but to point at rugby’s need to stamp out a situation whereby it becomes an accepted tactic for players to try and gain an advantage in getting opponents punished by feigning injury.

“We have had some incidents of simulation in rugby and we cannot allow a situation to develop, as has already happened in football, whereby it becomes an accepted tactic for players to try to gain an advantage or see opponents punished by feigning injury.”

“There have been a few examples over the past few years and we cannot accept that attitude as part of the game. This is not rugby being pious. I wish football had been strict in dealing with this because it is an ugly scar on the so-called beautiful game. Diving and theatrics are the biggest problem in football and the sport should long ago have brought in citing commissioners, who would have the power to study footage and bring charges after the game. That is what rugby did when it had a problem with excessive violence.”

Kay then wanders off further into rugby’s moral maze. “Rugby is not a puritanical sport. Players spend all game trying to push the boundaries of the law. If a player deliberately and cynically breaks one of the laws, he does so knowing that he is taking a risk and could be sanctioned. That is very different from a player trying to get an opponent sent to the sin-bin or dismissed altogether when he has not broken any laws at all. Rugby has to clamp down on it.”

There are certainly other issues exercising the minds of rugby officials at the moment, including players appealing for penalties, arguing for opponents to receive yellow cards and back chat. Kay is less concerned about most of these issues. For him it is perfectly natural for players to appeal for things when they see them in the heat of battle.

However, when players feign injury they are showing a lack of respect for their opponent and for their game. “We do not want players gesturing for yellow cards but there is nothing wrong with a captain asking for clarification on a decision that he feels is too lenient. There is a fine line between back chat and the importance of keeping open lines of communication between referees and players. That needs to be monitored because respect is critical. When players feign injury they are showing a lack of respect for their opponent and for their game.”

Then just like London buses, Stephen Jones, “Rugby’s most outspoken and influential journalist”, wrote an article in the June issue of Rugby World headlined “Is rugby now becoming football?” I feared the worse. But lo and behold, Jones admitted that rugby has long looked down its nose at football but it has to stop being sniffy, and he even admitted he prefers many aspects of the round-ball game. He even appears to be a Spurs fan!

He cites a number of areas where rugby is aligning itself with football. A hire and fire scenario with coaches. The attitude towards referees, specifically the constant appealing by players against decisions against them. Oh, and yes, brandishing an imaginary card to get a player booked. He reckons that in the last calendar year he has heard at least 20 players asking the referee to consider carding an opponent.

He does claim that in rugby there isn’t diving…….

In the 2014 European Cup final, Bryan Habana was reprimanded by Alain Rolland, the referee, for exaggerating a small off-the-ball collision with Owen Farrell.

At the 2015 World Cup, Stuart Hogg was rebuked by Nigel Owens for diving in Scotland’s game against South Africa at St James’ Park. “If you want to dive like that again, come back here in two weeks and play [when Newcastle United are at home],” the referee said at the time. And how we all laughed…..

World Rugby, a body which only calls the fire brigade when the house is already burnt down , issued a law amendment in 2015 that gives referees the power to issue a yellow card if they witness a player diving.

Surely this is the demolition of the last justification for rugby’s moral superiority. As Jones admits, the sport is now on the way to being just another sport.

I just wish other rugby scribes would admit it…

Six Nations: Can seven weeks equal five?

Scotland no doubt welcomed a rest this weekend after their gruelling encounter against France in Paris, during which four players sustained concussion and Greig Laidlaw limped off after 24 minutes with an ankle injury that ended his Six Nations. Three others had to be replaced because of injuries – so what shape would the side be in were the third round taking place last weekend , as has been suggested during the debate on the global calendar?

The Scots would have had six days to prepare for Wales, who themselves had a short turnaround for last weekend’s match against England after opening in Rome on the Sunday.

The argument for the Six Nations to be played over successive weekends is that it would free up space later in the season, that it could kick off in the latter part of February and replicate the World Cup, when the semi-finalists will play seven matches in six weeks or less. It is being championed by Premiership Rugby, which, under its agreement with the Rugby Football Union, cannot recall England players on the two fallow weekends during the championship.
The Southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship takes a week longer than the Six Nations as sides play six matches on a home and away basis. It is played in three blocks of two weekends and has two fallow weekends. It does not serve as a direct comparison because of the considerably greater travelling distances.

All matches in the Rugby Championship, though, are played on a Saturday. Were the Six Nations to be played in one go, would six-day turnarounds, especially after the first couple of rounds, enhance the tournament? As has already been seen this year, England have the strength in depth to cope with injury problems that wipe out half their pack, but the Celtic nations and Italy cannot.

A five-week tournament would be to England’s advantage, although would Premiership Rugby modify its agreement with the RFU regarding the call-up of players into the England squad if there were injuries in one or two positions? The Celts have the advantage of being able to add to their squads at will, although they lose control of their exiled players during the fallow weekends.

While teams have to play more matches in a similar period during the World Cup, they can often have two games against weaker opponents, when they are able to rotate their squad. And they have three months to prepare for the tournament rather than the couple of weeks they have for the Six Nations, when teams go into camp on the back of two European rounds. Saracens’ England internationals had full-on encounters with Toulon and the Scarlets before joining up with their international team-mates and a five-week Six Nations would require a greater lead-in period and a break for the players at the end.

Would it make a meaningful difference to the shape of the European season other than to keep the cameras rolling? When World Rugby started the talks over a global calendar, it said its main aim was player welfare. A five-week Six Nations would lead to sides hoping they drew Italy on the third weekend so they could – as England will at Twickenham in the next round – use the fixture to rotate.

An alternative is to look at the championship itself. It is 17 years since Italy joined, but recent results in the Six Nations show they are not keeping pace: they have conceded 40 points or more in eight of their last 14 matches. Scotland have done so twice in that period and France once.

A reversion to the old Five Nations, backed up by a second division, would be a way of playing the tournament over five weeks with the two matches each round scheduled on Saturdays. Every team would have a free weekend, although two, the ones who sat out the opening and final rounds, would play their games in one block.

It won’t happen, not so much because of what it would do for the Italian game (Italy are 14th in the world rankings, two places below Georgia) but because it would mean the loss of a home match every two years for the other five, on top of television getting fewer matches.

Recently the chief executive of the Six Nations ruled out promotion and relegation, but in doing so merely reinforced the impression that it is an archaic closed shop, more dedicated to making money for the unions than encouraging proper, meaningful competition.

What must scare the living daylights out of the organisers is the nightmare scenario where one of the big five had a really bad year, got the wooden spoon, and lost in any relegation play-off. Just imagine the furore if that happened, and their place was taken by one of the “minnows”.

Mike Miles – 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

 

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

Do TV bosses need to be kept in line?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

Are You being turned on to Rugby by the Six Nations?

Virtually every day my email reminds me how few days remain until the World Cup, and proudly promises me the best World Cup ever. But on the evidence of the Six Nations so far it will take one hell of a leap of the imagination to believe that promise.

The Six Nations Championship is meant to be the shop window of European rugby union, the time for the casual rugby fan to pause and see if the product is one to catch the eye. And in a home World Cup year this is even more the case.

In my opinion the tournament is damaged goods. Those buying into rugby expect pace, excitement, some up-tempo sport – and tries… Instead the sport is relying on advertising and marketing to fool as many of the people for as much of the time as possible.

Perhaps the World Cup will be the biggest party, the best organised, and perhaps it will make the financial profits promised as the ad men flog the sport for all it is worth.

But the grim truth on the field is that the Six Nations is delivering some of the most static sport imaginable. Purists may have looked appreciatively at Ireland’s tactical mastery against England, but to this fan, putting my English rose to one side, there was nothing to entice me further into rugby’s tent to see what the sport has to offer.

Steve Hansen, the New Zealand Word Cup-winning coach, was in Europe a few weeks ago. He watched Wales’s 20-13 victory over France, and England’s 19-9 defeat by Ireland in Dublin. As a reward for the price of his air fare and match tickets Hansen saw three tries. He may have stopped short of asking for his money back, but in an interview with the Western Mail, the former Wales coach expressed his fears that spectators will be less likely to part with their money unless the game’s attacking talents are seen more often “I’ve actually got big concerns about the game at the moment, because there are not enough tries being scored, which is turning the fans away,” Hansen said.

There is seldom a time when rugby is not ruminating about some aspect or other of its arcane laws, but for a sport with ambitions of pushing back its participatory and geographical boundaries, Hansen’s words should strike a particularly harsh chord, with the World Cup only six months away.

“We are about to go into a showpiece for the game,” he said. “There are millions of people watching it and all you are going to see is people kick goals.”

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

Dragon slaying

It was with some pleasure that I watched the start of the Six Nations, taking shelter from the Californian sun in Ye Olde Kings Head just off Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. I had been warned to get their early, as despite the pub charging a whopping $20 just to enter (to cover the “feed” yeah right) it was expected to be standing room only by the time the game started. As I walked into the dark room, my eyes taking time to adjust from the beautiful sunshine outside I saw a sea of red all around. It seems like every Welsh ex-pat in the city had descended on the bar to cheer on their country. I had hoped to have seen famous ex-pats such as Vinnie and Catherine Zeta Jones, not a couple in any way and sharing as many Welsh roots as Andrew Strauss, Kevin Pieterson and Zola Budd had to be English.

The US is no longer the cheap place it used to be thanks to the weakness of the pound. Gone are the days of your £2 pints. Now the going rate for a beer out here is $6, plus of course the obligatory $1 tip for serving it. It’s your job to serve it mate – why should I tip you for doing your job? Anyway, rant over I found a small space in the English corner and sat back awaiting fireworks. Continue reading