Bren­dan Fan­ning

How a re­shaped Premier­ship turns out could have a big im­pact on Euro com­pe­ti­tions

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - BREN­DAN FAN­NING

Ca­sual ob­servers ei­ther don’t un­der­stand or they wil­fully ig­nore that co-or­di­nat­ing suc­cess at pro­vin­cial and na­tional levels in this coun­try is not a handy gig.

IN the wake of Ire­land’s Grand Slam suc­cess at Twick­en­ham three weeks ago it wasn’t long be­fore the game of com­pare and con­trast kicked off. Given that Eng­land were the van­quished, they were the ones look­ing at the Ir­ish sys­tem and see­ing a play­ing pitch with a slope on it. Viewed from across the wa­ter, the men in green were the ones play­ing both halves down­hill.

In­evitably, this mor­phed into a whinge about the un­fair­ness of how things op­er­ate over here, how Joe Sch­midt rolls out of bed of a morn­ing and, de­pend­ing on what his horoscope says, rings up one of the pro­vin­cial coaches to pick his team for him.

Sch­midt’s love of con­trol has been well doc­u­mented, but its cov­er­age of the four proud prov­inces clearly is not com­plete. Would Joey Car­bery be lined up be­hind Ross Byrne in Le­in­ster if the Ire­land coach was push­ing ev­ery but­ton from his desk in Lans­downe Road?

Nev­er­the­less, Sch­midt (pic­tured be­low) has a han­dle on most of the mov­ing parts. And the ef­fect is a fairly smooth run­ning ma­chine. Rel­a­tive to our Celtic cousins, Scot­land and Wales, there is no com­par­i­son.

Mil­len­ni­als will look at you like you’ve just emerged from a time cap­sule if you try to tell them that the Scots once looked at us as easy beats. Through the 1990s we couldn’t buy a win in that fix­ture. Now if we lose to them it sparks an in­ter­nal re­view. Pre-pro­fes­sion­al­ism th­ese two rugby-play­ing na­tions were leav­ing from the same start line.

Wales, too, once con­sid­ered Ire­land as oc­ca­sion­ally awk­ward but al­ways beat­able. And while in the Cham­pi­onship it’s been tight enough since the turn of the cen­tury — 11-7 in Ire­land’s favour — we split into busi­ness class and steer­age on the suc­cess rate of the prov­inces ver­sus the re­gions. In 22 years of Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tion, Ire­land has six Heineken Cups and a Chal­lenge Cup in the tro­phy cabi­net, plus three run­ners-up. Wales has one Chal­lenge Cup and two run­ners-up in the same sec­ond-tier com­pe­ti­tion.

The key point about what Ire­land are do­ing well is to put man­ners on what they can con­trol. It is made eas­ier by a cou­ple of things: the sup­ply chain of lo­cal ta­lent; and the pri­macy of Test rugby, which helps keep them at home. Their in­flu­ence over the first cri­te­rion clearly is a whole lot more man­age­able than the lat­ter, for Test rugby is un­der con­stant threat to main­tain its space on the cal­en­dar. Not know­ing where that power game is go­ing is what should keep us awake at night.

Eng­land will be driv­ing that par­tic­u­lar bus. You will be aware of the on­go­ing de­bate there about the size and shape of their Premier­ship. Cur­rently it is all about grow­ing pains. Three years ago Premier Rugby’s Mark McCaf­ferty got out front with the idea of ex­tend­ing the com­pe­ti­tion from 12 to 14 clubs while at the same time clos­ing the door be­hind them.

“You need time to be a Premier­ship club and to be com­pet­i­tive on all fronts,”

he said then. “One of the more at­trac­tive ideas that has been mooted in the past is that per­haps there is a pe­riod of time dur­ing which there is no rel­e­ga­tion and we ex­pand the league care­fully dur­ing that two- or three-year pe­riod.”

That was 2015, when both the English and French clubs were pretty bullish af­ter their vic­tory over the rugby unions in get­ting con­trol of the skies over Europe. Here we are in spring 2018 and the tur­bu­lence hasn’t gone away.

The ar­gu­ment over the rights and wrongs of a league with the lad­der pulled up from the divi­sion be­low is not unique to Eng­land. Its rel­e­vance to this coun­try is less about the sus­pen­sion of traf­fic in and out of the top flight and more about the num­ber of pro­tected clubs. For if, as McCaf­ferty out­lined three years ago, that num­ber goes up to 13 to in­clude Bris­tol who vir­tu­ally se­cured their place in next sea­son’s top flight on Fri­day night, then the ex­tra week­ends to ac­com­mo­date that num­ber have to come from some­where. Like Europe. And that im­pacts ev­ery­one.

We had one of those laugh-out-loud mo­ments last week when read­ing that for some across the wa­ter the Cham­pi­ons Cup has “lost some of its aura.” The sight of two Ir­ish teams in the last four — Eng­land had only one rep­re­sen­ta­tive in the quar­ter-fi­nals — would do that sort of thing to you.

Ev­i­dently, it was an aura-free zone in 2012 when Le­in­ster and Ulster took over Twick­en­ham for the Heineken Cup fi­nal. Next came the turf war be­tween the English/French axis and the unions that com­prised the ERC. So we got EPCR in­stead of ERC, a stream­lined com­pe­ti­tion mi­nus au­to­matic en­try for the Ital­ians, and a lot of ex­trav­a­gant prom­ises about a suite of spon­sors mak­ing for a com­mer­cial bo­nanza. Could it be that we end up again with a head­line spon­sor, a beer com­pany who have been pulling pints at this gig from the start, and whose mod­est of­fer re­flects the times we live in?

This was go­ing to be rugby’s ver­sion of foot­ball’s Cham­pi­ons League. If ERC had been life be­hind the Iron Cur­tain then EPCR would take the wall down, and pros­per­ity would reign. The only iden­ti­fi­able com­mon­al­ity be­tween the Cham­pi­ons Cup and the Cham­pi­ons League is the way the teams walk out to­gether, all dra­matic like.

Within a cou­ple of sea­sons the Pad­dies were off the premises when it came to the knock­outs. In the quar­ter-fi­nals of Europe in 2015 Ire­land had a sole rep­re­sen­ta­tive — Le­in­ster. A year later they had none. Suc­cess for Eng­land and France? It didn’t feel or look that way when for the semi-fi­nals nei­ther could sum­mon up enough sup­port to take the empty look off the Made­jski or the City Ground, which re­spec­tively were 32 per cent and 25 per cent short of ca­pac­ity. A Cham­pion look, that.

But here we are again with the usual sus­pects back in a fa­mil­iar haunt, with Le­in­ster and Mun­ster in the last four of the Cham­pi­ons Cup. Ca­sual ob­servers ei­ther don’t un­der­stand or they wil­fully ig­nore that co-or­di­nat­ing suc­cess at pro­vin­cial and na­tional levels in this coun­try is not a handy gig. They see the rest af­forded our Test stars from PRO14 games that their coun­ter­parts have to play and in­fer au­to­matic suc­cess at in­ter­na­tional level. Great.

But how do the prov­inces cope so well when those same play­ers are with­drawn?

By build­ing from within, and shop­ping wisely over­seas. Con­tin­u­ing that suc­cess story means be­ing able to adapt to what’s happening else­where. Which brings us to the fu­ture of the Premier­ship and how it will im­pact on the rest of us.

Typ­i­cally the shape of that league is dis­cussed in sum­mer when none of its con­stituents is overly ex­er­cised. Then it kicks off again as the early re­sults roll in dur­ing Septem­ber. By mid-Oc­to­ber the writ­ing is on the wall, so those hov­er­ing near the bot­tom plug the sta­tus quo as the only show in town. If the Premier­ship does forge ahead with ex­pan­sion then clearly it has to sat­isfy the RFU, and un­less they can squeeze more cash from that source then fi­nan­cially it means more mouths to feed with the same ra­tions. More­over, by def­i­ni­tion a big­ger league lessens the qual­ity of the rugby, sim­ply by hav­ing to spread the ta­lent fur­ther.

Mark McCaf­ferty used the re­verse ar­gu­ment in suc­cess­fully lob­by­ing for the stream­lin­ing of the Cham­pi­ons Cup. So he can hardly claim oth­er­wise now. If any­thing, a re­duc­tion would be bet­ter. The grief in get­ting this over the line how­ever would be un­told. The com­pro­mise would be to buy out Lon­don Ir­ish, who have never been close to the ca­bal that drives the am­bi­tion of that league, and with Bris­tol pro­moted the com­pe­ti­tion can stay at 12. Mick Crossan, the ma­jor share­holder at the Ex­iles, has al­ready been of­fered more than €3.4m. He’d need a bit more than that. What con­cerns us on this side of the wa­ter is the un­der­stand­ing that if the Premier­ship does ex­pand then Europe con­tracts. There would be a rump of sup­port in France too for, say, four pool games in­stead of six. Not good for folks in this neck of the woods who rely on that rev­enue. The com­fort blan­ket is the tele­vi­sion deals that are in place, bring­ing Euro­pean rugby onto satel­lite and ter­res­trial plat­forms for the next four years.

There will be ag­i­ta­tion for change at regular in­ter­vals along that jour­ney, but the chief cri­te­rion for fun­da­men­tal change in pro­fes­sional sport is some­one to sign the cheque.

In the sum­mer of 1995 rugby didn’t bin am­a­teurism for rea­sons of al­tru­ism or fair play or to sat­isfy public opin­ion. It hap­pened be­cause two men with trousers full of cash started fir­ing it at play­ers to sign up for a new era. So rugby made a choice: they went with Ru­pert Mur­doch, and re­tained a good mea­sure of con­trol over their own game.

That road is still tak­ing twists and turns. Its di­rec­tion will con­tinue to be dic­tated by who­ever ponies up the cash. So if it’s to be a Bri­tish and Ir­ish League, an ex­panded PRO14 with a greater South African in­volve­ment, or some model yet to be wheeled out, noth­ing will hap­pen with­out some­one think­ing it’s worth the in­vest­ment. Given that all bar one club — Ex­eter — in the Premier­ship are loss-mak­ers and a hand­ful are up for sale, it’s clear this busi­ness is not a li­cence to print money.

Twenty-three years later, Sky, who started it all with Mur­doch’s mil­lions, have lost much of their ap­petite for rugby. You won­der does any­one reckon they can make a few bob from this game. Yet through it all Ire­land Inc are trad­ing pretty well. Now fancy that.

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