Anglo-Welsh Cup Final – Exeter Chiefs 12 Leicester Tigers 16

Apparently there was a big rugby match in Dublin this weekend, but to say the Anglo-Welsh Cup Final slipped under the radar would be a massive understatement.

This is a strange competition. Rather like its round-ball equivalent, the Football League Cup, it takes place seemingly when no one else is looking and is competed for by reserve and up and coming players. Originally known as the R.F.U. Club Competition (for which no Cup was awarded!) it kicked off in 1972. It became the Anglo-Welsh Cup in 2006, and it says everything about its (lack of) profile that it is currently without a sponsor.

Finals used to be held at Twickenham on the other side of the A316 – I was among the 43,312 crowd who saw Leicester overcome Ospreys in a thrilling final 41-35 on a sun drenched afternoon in 2007.Over the last decade dwindling interest and attendances have caused the final to be shunted around various Premiership stadia. Harlequin’s Stoop was the latest to have the “honour”. The home side were knocked out in the semi-finals so just over 6,000 souls rattled around a stadium meant to hold 15,000 on a dry, blustery March afternoon.

Leicester Tigers annual claim to silverware used to be something you could take for granted, but this was their first trophy of any description in four barren years. In a season which has seen Leicester part company with long-time Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill, a first cup since their Premiership title of 2013 can’t have done confidence any harm.

On current league form Exeter were clear favourites. They had even trounced the Tigers in the Premiership a few weeks earlier at Welford Road. James Short crossed to give the Chiefs an early lead, but Tom Brady intercepted a loose pass for what proved the decisive try for Leicester before half-time. Freddie  Burns was the difference with three penalties and a conversion in difficult kicking conditions, while his Chiefs counterpart, Joe Simmonds, missed two relatively straightforward penalty attempts either side of half time. Sam Simmonds made it a nervy finish with a late try under the posts but it was too little, too late

Tigers became the first club to record a hat-trick of wins in the competition. Exeter were in their third successive final, having beaten Northampton in 2014 and lost to Saracens a year later. The 2014 win remains the club’s only major trophy in their 146-year history, though currently lying second in the Premiership that could change come the end of May.

Mike Miles

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

www.scrumdown.org.uk

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Aviva Premiership benefits from calendar mess

There has been a lot of talk this season about rugby’s messy schedule. Concerns over a lack of alignment between the hemispheres, internationals in the middle of the season, the sheer number of games players are involved in and the length of the Six Nations tournament are all concerns for the men at the top.

Sir Clive Woodward recently proposed a five-week tournament, in order to better mirror the knock-out stages of a World Cup. There is also a concern that the tournament robs the Premiership clubs of their players for too long.

Because of the added fallow weeks, that is seven weeks the clubs lose their top players over the Six Nations. There is a further four weeks over the Autumn Internationals, not to mention the various training camps. Most importantly of all, it equates to seven missed premiership matches. That is a third of the season and a possible 35 points up for grabs. To put that in context, Saracens finished last season on 80 points. 32 below them were Bath in ninth.

There was a stark reminder of the situation recently as Gloucester downed the defending champions Saracens, Sale defeated the current table-toppers Wasps, and Newcastle completed their double over east-midlands heavyweights Northampton Saints. Even second from bottom Worcester also beat Saracens. Back during the autumn series, Newcastle claimed an important win against Harlequins and that first against Northampton, and Wasps lost to Gloucester.

The clubs are financially compensated for the loss of their players – with a figure in excess of £200 million agreed between clubs and country – but there is still murmurings about devaluing the game for the fans, not to mention the ‘fair’ aspect; how can we have a tournament where the best teams lose their best players for a third of the matches? When the English football side play competitive internationals there are no Premiership or even Championship matches scheduled.

I will be honest – I don’t care. The crazy, messed up schedule with international players coming and going, is part of the reason to love the Premiership. It levels the playing field just the right amount and stops an elite few running away with it. The bottom teams go into these matches with a glint in their eyes. They know the best are there to be beaten when they are missing those one or two players that separate them from the rest. It also means the best teams cannot rest on their laurels – during the internationals they are exposed and there is an opportunity, not just for their opponents, but for their rivals to gain ground on them.

The play-offs also take care of the ‘fair’ criticism to a certain extent. The occasional loss by the top teams does not necessarily cost them the trophy, they must instead ensure they finish in the top four and all is to play for come May. It may split the difference for a team with regard to fourth versus fifth, or a home or away play-off place, or indeed a spot in the Champions cup, but no system is perfect.

Perhaps more importantly, it also is invaluable for bringing through emerging players. There is the Anglo-Welsh Cup and that plays a role in giving exposure to young players, but it is treated with such disdain by most clubs that often they are little better than b-fixtures anyway. They are definitely not the same as playing in a Premiership game.

I understand the reasons people are calling for the rugby season to be changed – particularly when it comes to player welfare and the madness that the best players may have as little as six weeks off playing to let their bodies recover before preseason starts. And of course, this is a myopic Premiership centred view – it impacts some of the clubs in the Pro12 far more acutely (how are Glasgow expected to be competitive when they lose 15 players to the Scottish squad?).

But I for one like the chaos it brings to the Premiership. It creates the environment for giant-killings by the bottom clubs and the international stars of the future to get proper and sustained exposure to top level rugby. Everyone wins like this.

Mike Miles

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

RFU Championship : The Lessons from London Welsh

All the media attention may be on the Six Nations, but I am looking forward to hearing how the RFU plans to revitalise the Championship.Somehow, the wealthiest national governing body in world rugby has allowed its second-tier competition to sink into disrepair.

Compared to the Premiership, it’s a veritable slum. There are reports of players not only earning well below the living wage, but also having to cover their own medical expenses.Many of these players have chosen to abandon the game. Others didn’t even get that choice. A fortnight ago London Welsh was expunged from the league – and possibly the history books – after Twickenham declared the club’s financial position to be “untenable”.

Sickeningly, the historic side’s one major misstep was in becoming too successful. Promotion to the top flight in 2012 saw them forced to abandon Old Deer Park, their spiritual home, for an industrial estate near Oxford. There they had the 10,000 seats as required by Premiership Rugby. Unfortunately, the bums needed to fill them remained back in Richmond.

The subsequent three seasons saw the Exiles relegated, promoted again and relegated again. This yo-yoing caused such a bout of the bends that they failed to score a single win during the length of the 2014/15 season. Worse, a host of hasty, stop-the-rot signings left them with a mountain of unresolved debts.

The rest is history; London Welsh are now history.

And with terminal failure so closely entwined with fleeting success, who would now want to take up the poisoned chalice of promotion? Perhaps that’s the gist of the RFU’s imminent reveal: a Premiership ring-fenced for the safety of all.

It’s easy to point accusatory fingers at Twickers, but it’s not fair. They can’t be expected to bankroll “untenable” enterprises. Like it or not, professional rugby is a business: it’s sink or swim, and only the fittest survive.

So perhaps we should just let nature take its course. Perhaps rugby in England just isn’t big enough to support two tiers of professionalism.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

Are Leicester Tigers are the rugby equivalent of Arsenal?

I have written in the past how rugby union is acquiring the (bad) habits of the round-ball game. We are barely into 2017 and Leicester Tigers find themselves in the position of Arsenal post-Abramovich – qualifying for Europe every season, while living within their means and reducing debt, but never seriously threatening to win the league or a European trophy.

Happy new year to you all,” wrote Richard Cockerill in what turned out to be his final programme notes as Leicester’s director of rugby. Less than 24 hours later, the club announced he had been sacked following the defeat by the club who have become as dominant this decade as the Tigers were in the 2000s, Saracens.

Cockerill became the second director of rugby of a Premiership club to lose his job this season following Andy Robinson’s dismissal by Bristol and five sides are now under different management from last season, as are the relegated London Irish. Leicester could not be accused of acting in haste as they faced up to a prospect of missing out on a trip to Twickenham in May for a fourth consecutive season. But as they showed in 2004 when removing another stalwart who had spent 23 years at Welford Road, Dean Richards, sentiment stretches only so far.

Before the start of the Twickenham double-header in 2004, Leicester were by some distance the best supported club in England and the only one to regularly record a profit. At the end of the previous season, their average gate for a league match was 16,120; Northampton were second, 5,000 behind. Bath, Wasps and Saracens did not make it into five figures.

It was a time when Leicester could sign big names from abroad, such as Pat Howard, Rod Kafer, Aaron Mauger – who is in interim charge of the first team after Cockerill’s departure – and Daryl Gibson, supplementing them with those lesser known such as Marcos Ayerza and Martin Castrogiovanni. These days, the elite end up in the Top 14 or as a marquee signing for English clubs able to live beyond their means.

Just as Roman Abramovich changed Premier League football when he bought Chelsea in 2003 and covered debts of £80m, so the ownership model of clubs ahead of Leicester in the table, Exeter excluded, has recalibrated the Premiership.

Saracens’ debt stood at more than £45m last year after an annual loss of nearly £4m, a shortfall covered by the club’s parent company, Premier Team Holdings Limited.

Bath lost £1.8m last year, down from £3m in 2014. Wasps lost £2.4m and took £35m in debt when they issued a bond scheme that is due in 2022, by which time the club anticipate a significant rise in revenue from outside rugby through the Ricoh Arena. Leicester, a public limited company, have the highest turnover of any Premiership club and the largest number of regular supporters, but paying to improve facilities – the latest upgrade at Welford Road cost £8m – left them reaching the salary cap but not making any marquee signings until the arrival of the Australian centre Matt Toomua last summer, and he played just a couple of matches before sustaining a long-term knee injury.

Leicester find themselves in the position of Arsenal post-Abramovich, going from vying for the title to battling for a top-four place while living within their means and reducing the debt on the Emirates Stadium.

It is in one sense fitting that Leicester’s first match without Cockerill was at Wasps. A couple of years ago it would have meant a trip to Wycombe but now it is a Midlands derby with the former London club now based in Coventry, a shortish drive from Leicester and Northampton, another club run on business lines that is scrabbling to keep up.

The Tigers board’s first task is to look at the coaching setup. Does it go for a director of rugby in the Martin Johnson mould, someone who would let the head coach run the rugby side while having responsibility for recruitment and contracts, or continue with the current structure? Then comes the question of how to compete with clubs such as Saracens, who are able to absorb large losses. Is the old way, on and off the pitch, becoming the wrong way for a club that should be the model for others?

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

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