Sir Ian McGeechan

There is far too much rugby. The game needs an over­haul

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page -

The hand-wring­ing in the wake of Eng­land’s de­feat by Ire­land at Twick­en­ham last week­end was in­evitable. For a team such as Eng­land – with their depth of re­sources and tal­ent – fin­ish­ing fifth in this NatWest Six Na­tions was noth­ing short of a disas­ter. Yes, Ed­die Jones’s team won the two ti­tles prior to that and en­joyed a long un­beaten run un­der the Aus­tralian. But we all know that that was de­spite the com­pe­ti­tion struc­ture that ex­ists in Eng­land rather than be­cause of it.

The fact is, there is too much rugby played in this coun­try. We know that.

We know, too, that the game is get­ting more phys­i­cal. Some­thing has to give. The prob­lems stem from the way the Premier­ship was set up, the chaos in those first few years af­ter the game turned pro­fes­sional in 1995. Whereas in Ire­land, with the union back­ing four prov­inces, or in Wales or New Zealand, where the pop­u­la­tions are sim­i­larly small, in Eng­land, right from the word go, there was sep­a­ra­tion be­tween the clubs and the Rugby Foot­ball Union.

They were run as en­tirely sep­a­rate busi­nesses. Eng­land are suf­fer­ing be­cause they did have in­ter­ested spon­sors and part­ners in those early years. Be­cause the clubs were able to se­cure sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment they did not need to rely on their union.

I re­mem­ber those days as if they were from an­other age. I was at Northamp­ton at the time, work­ing un­der Keith Bar­well, who was a bril­liant left-field thinker.

Af­ter the game went pro, the se­nior clubs joined to­gether as a busi­ness via Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tions laws, with each club hav­ing two board mem­bers. Be­cause I had ex­pe­ri­ence of the coach­ing and man­age­ment side of club and in­ter­na­tional rugby, Keith asked if I would fill the coach­ing brief. So I was ac­tu­ally on the clubs’ board for the first four years of pro­fes­sional rugby. It was a fas­ci­nat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

There were some big char­ac­ters in that group. Chris Wright at Wasps was very good. Nigel Wray, at Sara­cens, is still there, of course, and has shown un­be­liev­able sup­port for the game.

It was an ex­cit­ing time in many ways, a vac­uum to be filled. Ev­ery­one was try­ing to work out what the pro­fes­sional game should look like. When the RFU im­posed that mora­to­rium soon af­ter the game turned pro­fes­sional, it be­came a bit like the Wild West.

I re­mem­ber at one meet­ing Sir John Hall talk­ing about tele­vi­sion rights and how we could de­mand this and that. I pointed out that this was rugby, not foot­ball. Keith told me the next day that Sir John had rung him and asked: “Who’s that lit­tle up­start you brought with you?”

Sir John did pretty well, mind. Dur­ing the mora­to­rium he ba­si­cally went around buy­ing key men from Wasps – Rob Andrew, Dean Ryan, Steve Bates (who brought a young school­boy named Jonny Wilkin­son with him), as well as Pat Lam, Inga Tuiga­mala and a strong Scottish con­tin­gent. New­cas­tle won the Premier­ship in 1997-98.

The point is, ev­ery­one was out to help them­selves – and that was not all bad. The Premier­ship has grown into a hugely suc­cess­ful busi­ness. The most suc­cess­ful in the rugby world, al­beit one that lost £25mil­lion last year.

The game in Eng­land, at club and in­ter­na­tional level, has cre­ated the op­por­tu­nity for sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial re­turns, par­tic­u­larly from the in­ter­na­tional pro­gramme.

But that power, that fi­nan­cial mus­cle, does mean that 20 years on there is no way a cen­tral contract sys­tem will work in Eng­land. I laugh when I read peo­ple sug­gest­ing that now. What could work, I think, is some sort of joint ven­ture. Be­cause it is surely in ev­ery­one’s in­ter­ests if the na­tional team are strong, the club game is strong and the Premier­ship is not los­ing money.

I have writ­ten be­fore that I would favour pe­ri­ods with no pro­mo­tion and rel­e­ga­tion. But I think you could go even fur­ther left-field; rip it all up and start again.

Go with two con­fer­ences of seven, with the top four in each con­fer­ence qual­i­fy­ing for a top-eight play-off. Get rid of the Anglo-Welsh Cup…

One way or an­other, the play­ers have to play fewer games. I re­mem­ber a study car­ried out by the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Sport which rec­om­mended that the ideal num­ber of games for de­vel­op­ing play­ers was no more than 15-20 in a sea­son. And, for elite play­ers, no more than 34.

If you con­sider that 11 of those are in­ter­na­tion­als, that leaves maybe 23 games left for the clubs. Fac­tor in the Cham­pi­ons Cup games and that is not a whole lot of league games.

But the RFU has the fi­nan­cial mus­cle to offer a big­ger re­mu­ner­a­tion pack­age.

And, ul­ti­mately, if Eng­land suc­ceed, the clubs suc­ceed. And vice versa. Is it pos­si­ble that more value and suc­cess could come from less?

The bad news is that we are only a cou­ple of years into an eight-year deal be­tween the clubs and the union.

The good news is that the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the RFU and the Premier­ship is the best it has ever been. And there should be the con­fi­dence to have an on­go­ing as­sess­ment of the shape of the best com­pet­i­tive do­mes­tic struc­ture within the new pa­ram­e­ters of the global sea­son.

In the eight years of the agree­ment, the game will con­tinue to evolve and the key as­sets – the play­ers – need to be re­spon­si­bly looked af­ter.

As I say, it was atro­cious for five years at the start of the pro­fes­sional era. But I think there is a real chance now to reach some sort of agree­ment, some sort of joint ven­ture. It is very in­ter­est­ing that Ian Ritchie has now been ap­pointed Premier­ship Rugby’s new chair­man.

As a for­mer RFU chief ex­ec­u­tive he has ex­pe­ri­ence of both sides, and, cru­cially, he is not tied to any par­tic­u­lar club. Per­haps he is the man to bro­ker it.

The prob­lems stem from the way the Premier­ship was set up in the first place

Low point: Chris Rob­shaw (left) and Owen Far­rell leave the pitch fol­low­ing de­feat by Ire­land at Twick­en­ham last week­end

4SIR IAN McGEECHAN

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