An­drew’s fears for the fu­ture of rugby

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY - PAUL REES

ROB An­drew’s part­ing shot to rugby after spend­ing 30 years in the game as a player, di­rec­tor of rugby and ad­min­is­tra­tor was a book on the game in Eng­land in the pro­fes­sional era that fi­nally put his side of the tu­mul­tuous events at Twick­en­ham that cul­mi­nated in a con­fla­gra­tion on and off the field in 2011 .

As he grap­ples with cricket’s chang­ing land­scape in his lat­est role as Sus­sex’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, he be­lieves the sport in which he spent most of his life has reached a crit­i­cal junc­ture.

Grow­ing con­cerns about in­juries and the length of the sea­son have prompted play­ers to con­sider go­ing on strike, the ex­o­dus of play­ers from the south­ern hemi­sphere to Europe shows no sign of slow­ing down and, after 22 years of pro­fes­sion­al­ism, clubs are no nearer to sus­tained prof­itabil­ity than they were when the am­a­teur dam burst and mil­lion­aire own­ers waded in.

“In some ways the game has stayed the same rather than moved for­ward,” says An­drew, who after 10 years at New­cas­tle joined the RFU as a di­rec­tor whose job ti­tle seemed to change fre­quently. “No one has the dom­i­nant po­si­tion over is­sues like con­trol of play­ers, the con­flict be­tween club and coun­try and where the money goes. It is a con­stant bat­tle for com­pro­mise and the edge.

“The fear at the mo­ment is that it has been pushed to the limit where ei­ther through in­juries or the length of the sea­son we are not far off the play­ers down­ing tools. That is a se­ri­ous pos­si­bil­ity. The game is get­ting worse, not bet­ter, and it can­not con­tinue like that be­cause the im­pact on the sport will be enor­mous. We all hear about par­ents who do not want their kids to play rugby or the kids them­selves say they don’t want to be forced to play rugby.

“Go down that road for long enough and you dam­age the game. I am not be­ing alarmist: I don’t want it to hap­pen. I just don’t know what the an­swer is. Play­ers are now in­cred­i­ble ath­letes and go at a hell of a pace at each other with a lot of force. The in­ten­sity never drops and what is not fo­cused on enough is that it is not a 15-man game, which it was years ago, when all 15 stayed on the field and there was a bit of room in the last 20 min­utes be­cause ev­ery­one was knack­ered. Now, it is a 23-man game and at the tired point more than half a team comes on fresh so there is no drop in in­ten­sity level. That is not what rugby was de­signed for.”

Dur­ing An­drew’s years at New­cas­tle the English game was pock­marked by con­tin­ual dis­putes be­tween the Premier­ship clubs and Twick­en­ham over con­trol of play­ers and money. One of the rea­sons he was hired by the RFU was to bro­ker an agree­ment be­tween the two. It re­sulted in the elite player deal that started in 2008 and was re­newed eight years later. Re­la­tions be­tween the two par­ties be­came more har­mo­nious but, as has been seen this year in de­bates over the length of the Six Na­tions, Lions tours and the do­mes­tic sea­son, it seems to be more truce than treaty.

“There is an uneasy part­ner­ship in Eng­land and France be­tween the club and coun­try model,” says An­drew. “Club rugby is strong in both coun­tries and it is a long game. Union want to pro­tect the in­ter­na­tional game and their po­si­tion in it while some own­ers would like clubs to be­come more dom­i­nant, as they are in foot­ball. The bal­ance of power will move de­pend­ing on cir­cum­stances: Test rugby needs to re­main strong but there are some coun­tries strug­gling play­ing wise and fi­nan­cially, vic­tims of mar­ket forces.

“It can­not be good for the game long-term that there are so many play­ers from the south­ern hemi­sphere earn­ing their liv­ings in Europe. It stokes wage in­fla­tion there and has had an ef­fect on the qual­ity in Su­per Rugby. The av­er­age salary in the Premier­ship based on the salary cap is around £200,000; many play­ers will be on £300,000-500,000. I would not deny them try­ing to eke out as much as they can: we pushed things as play­ers in my era but it does not make any sense to me when clubs have had all this new money but the own­ers are still bleat­ing that it is cost­ing them £2m a year or more. Whose fault is that?

“It is a prob­lem and, like in­juries, it is not get­ting any bet­ter. There are fi­nan­cial stresses on the sys­tem and a mas­sive drain to Eng­land and France and it will have a detri­men­tal ef­fect on both sides of the equa­tion. Shar­ing tier one rev­enue has been dis­cussed many times but it is com­pli­cated to de­liver some­thing that works for ev­ery­body.

“I am not sure there is a de­cline in in­ter­est in in­ter­na­tional rugby but it is a risk and, if the game ceases to be a ma­jor sport in South Africa or Aus­tralia, for what­ever rea­son, the whole game would feel it. Noth­ing is cast in stone and the chal­lenge for all sports ex­cept foot­ball is not so much to grow as to halt the de­cline.”

An­drew’s stint at the RFU cov­ered three World Cups and four head coaches of Eng­land — Andy Robin­son, Brian Ash­ton, Martin John­son and Stu­art Lan­caster — all of whom were ei­ther pushed out or took the hint and jumped. An­drew was tasked in 2008 with sound­ing out John­son, who at that point had not done any coaching since re­tir­ing as a player after the 2003 World Cup, while Ash­ton was in po­si­tion and un­aware that his job was be­ing touted to some­one else.

“I al­lowed my­self to be put in a po­si­tion with the Martin John­son ap­point­ment,” says An­drew. “At that time there was a lot of per­sonal agenda stuff go­ing on at Twick­en­ham and it was not very pleas­ant. Part of the rea­son for do­ing the book was to put my side of the story. There was a point when I stood up to cer­tain in­di­vid­u­als and in one case there was a him or me mo­ment. I am a stub­born York­shire­man: the more some­one tries to un­der­mine me, the more stub­born I be­come.“In the end it was high-level sport­ing pol­i­tics at its worst, the last gasp of the am­a­teurs. It all came crash­ing down to end poor gov­er­nance. It was ugly at the time but the whole thing is dif­fer­ent now. I left [in 2016] be­cause I fan­cied a change.”

‘We are not far off the play­ers down­ing tools. That is a se­ri­ous pos­si­bil­ity’

Rob An­drew: ‘The fear is that the game has been pushed to the limit’

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