Rugby Union: Game's fantasy ride to oblivion

Chris Rea feels that club rugby cannot continue to live beyond its means
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It is not often that I find myself in complete agreement with Sir John Hall. The northern knight, who is never happier than when he is fulminating against the establishment and in particular against the Rugby Football Union, was telling anyone daft enough to listen to him at the Recreation Ground, Bath, last week, that the premier clubs should be responsible for negotiating their own television contract.

Well, Sir John, for what it is worth, I think you are absolutely right. In fact you might also have the law on your side. The Allied Dunbar League is, after all, the clubs' own competition played on their own grounds, two very sound reasons for self-determination of the broadcasting rights.

What Sir John may be less happy to hear is the real worth of his prized possession. Would it upset him terribly, I wonder, to discover that instead of the pounds 22 million hand-out the clubs will be receiving from Sky's deal with the RFU during the next five years, the true value of club rugby over that period is closer to pounds 10m?

The sorry fact is that the RFU negotiators who concluded that infamous agreement with Sky have sold off the silverware at a shamefully low price.

By cutting their traditional ties with the other countries, they not only undersold the property by at least five times its proper value, but they were bullied by Sky into giving away a quarter of it to the clubs for no other reason than the fact that the television company wanted to fill their screens week after week with live action, no matter its quality and irrespective of the size of the audience.

Only now is the full impact of that appalling deal hitting Twickenham. Quite apart from imperilling the Five Nations Championship, little consideration appears to have been given to the fact that television is on the brink of a monumental revolution with the arrival of the digital age and the Internet. So many mouth-watering opportunities, yet the RFU have shackled themselves for five years.

They are locked into a commitment with Sky which may or may not make provision for such future developments. The problem though is that when the contract with Sky expires, there may be no competitive bidder in the market place, the BBC and ITV having turned their attention to other pursuits. That would have catastrophic consequences for the game's finances, but the dangers are now staring rugby in the face.

Put in the simplest of terms, the sport has gone stark raving bonkers. International rugby is what funds and fuels the game at all levels and, unless the RFU turn the golden goose into a battery hen which, with their lunatic pre-Christmas schedule they are in grave danger of doing, that is how it will be in the future. There is, of course, a vital and vibrant role for the clubs to play but, unlike football, it will always be subordinate to and in support of the real breadwinners, the national side.

It no doubt escaped Sir John Hall's notice that the Recreation Ground was nowhere near full for the visit of his beloved Newcastle Falcons. This, despite the fact that the game had received unprecedented pre-match hype and that rugby was basking in the glories of the Lions' deeds in South Africa. The sense of anticipation for the start of the season was, we were told, without parallel in the history of the universe. Yet on any weekend of Premiership rugby, the combined total of spectators at the six matches would be less than an average gate at Old Trafford. With delicious irony on the very same day and in the very same newspaper that Rob Andrew was accusing the RFU of underhand practice in seeking primacy of contract with the top players, there was confirmation of the demise of Rugby Special after 31 years of yeoman, if reluctant, service to the club follower.

A couple of days later came the news that Chrysalis had bought the secondary rights to screen the club highlights from Sky for the princely sum of pounds 100,000. That is serious peanuts, although to date no television company has taken the bait. Does this sound like a product worth dying for? To be honest, it isn't a product worth putting half a Smartie into and I'd be prepared to place a hefty bet on the fact that, before the season is out, at least one big investor in a top club will decide to cut his losses.

Not even the multiest of the multi-millionaires at present enjoying a fantasy ride around England's most appealing club venues will continue to shore up a game losing money at the rate club rugby is at the moment. The real pain begins now when the debt, already approaching pounds 20m, will rocket still further, fuelled by the unsustainable wage bills. For the wealthy entrepreneur it will have been an enjoyable if costly interlude. For the clubs faced with financial ruin, and their loyal supporters, it will be the end of the road.