Rugby Union: Fantasy league overdoses on arrogance

Chris Rea argues that the clubs must be stopped from taking over the controls
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The Independent Online
LAST week I lunched with a club owner whose views on rugby are well worth listening to. There were, he contended, just two areas of discord between the top 12 English clubs and the Rugby Football Union. One was the structure of the domestic season, the other, the composition of English teams playing in Europe. Neither problem, he felt, was insurmountable, and both could be solved by reasoned debate and pragmatic compromise.

Two days later, the clubs unveiled their laughably one-eyed vision for the future which, with monumental arrogance, seeks not only to control the game in England and Europe, but to dictate the terms for the playing of international matches as well. So much for the reasonable face of club ownership.

What is really scary is that the men running the show seriously believe that they are professionals, yet their charter is pure fantasy. They have laid out extravagant plans for ground improvements, youth development and the creation of excellence when they are already up to their necks in debt just running their clubs. So how on earth do they intend to fund those grandiose schemes? From sponsorship and television? No way.

The clubs want to be treated like their counterparts in football's Premiership, blithely ignoring the fact that they are not exactly comparing like with like. Football's elite are paid hundreds of millions of pounds by television to screen their product at peak viewing times. Rugby's top dozen, on the other hand, are having to fork out their own cash - supplemented by the RFU, incidentally - for an hour of cobbled-together coverage on a Sunday night.

Nothing so neatly highlights the vast chasm between football and rugby. The two sports occupy different planets despite the strident claims of Sir John Hall and his acolytes that club rugby will become the driving force behind the game. The sheer effrontery of this man knows no bounds. Last week he dismissed the RFU's proposals for English qualified sides in Europe as being "alien to our rugby culture". OUR culture? What does he know or care about rugby's culture? He is talking through his hat.

Until the establishment of the national leagues 10 years ago, English rugby was, for almost a century, based not on the clubs but on the county structure. The premier domestic competition was the county championship and from the ranks of the mighty Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, Lancashire and Cornish sides of the past was drawn the England XV. The rise of the clubs as the focal point of the domestic game is therefore a recent phenomenon, although no one would deny that the formation of a national league structure has had a hugely beneficial effect on the game in England.

It is no coincidence that just three years after the inception of the leagues, England won the Grand Slam and that the Nineties have proved to be the most successful decade in their history. Equally, however, there is a great deal of sentimental garbage talked about the culture surrounding club rugby and the supporters' loyalty to it.

The success of Saracens this season has proved beyond all doubt that a robust club following can be grown in a very short time from the most barren ground. In these columns last week Peter Deakin, the Saracens' marketing director, provided a fascinating insight into the work the club is doing to build and cement relations in the local community. They have done a magnificent job in forging links with the schools, colleges and businesses in the area through all manner of creative initiatives. From a tiny and unstable base and operating in an area of the country regarded as a rugby wasteland, they have constructed a large and enthusiastic support as evidenced by the 12,000-plus who watched last week's game against Wasps.

Contrast this with the meagre 2,500 watching the expensively assembled grandees of the English game, Richmond, established in 1861, and Harlequins, a mere five years younger. So much for culture and tradition. Loyalty is a fickle friend in the age of professionalism. It follows success and Saracens have proved that if the product is good and is well-packaged and presented, people will turn up to watch it.

The one thing Mr Deakin omitted to tell us, of course, is what it would take for Saracens to turn their good works into the kind of profit which would deliver on the wild promises made in the clubs' charter last week. There is a sensibly researched and financially viable alternative on the table, blending the best of club and county, and had the clubs deigned to turn up at Twickenham last month they would have heard about it from Fran Cotton. The bottom line is that club rugby as it is at present structured, cannot survive. Twelve clubs in England are asking the rest of the game to dance to their tune. They must not be allowed to succeed.