Rugby Union: Net gain in clubs' money struggles

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The Independent Online
WHEN Rugby Network, the sport's first business to utilise the World Wide Web, advertised for a coach for Huntingdon Beach RFC, surfers of the net around the world nearly fell over themselves in a tidal response.

It isn't that Huntingdon Beach is the Bath of America's West Coast. Far from it. Limited resources, strictly amateursville. So why the wave of applicants? Huntingdon Beach is the location in California for the television series Baywatch. "I was almost tempted to apply for the post myself," said Ian Sutherland, managing director of Rugby Network.

Sutherland, who has coached in Canada, Argentina and Wales, established the company in Swansea in 1996 to provide a service to clubs, players and unions in the wake of the chaotic move to professionalism, which has left most clubs pleading poverty to the extent that they would not be averse to a hand-out from the Salvation Army.

This week, Sutherland launched a scheme that he believes could prevent treasurers from hurling themselves off window ledges. The idea of the Sponsor's Card, which will be issued free to clubs, is that every time a member uses it to make a purchase, his or her club receives a commission. "It could prove a lifeline to clubs who are battling to come to grips with the problems posed by the professional era, especially at grass roots level," Ray Williams, the chairman of Rugby World Cup, said. "It gives every club, regardless of playing standard, the chance to raise substantial sums."

Sutherland added: "When you consider that if only half of the 2,500 clubs registered in Britain sign up, and the average membership of each club is 300, conservative estimates suggest the game could benefit from an additional annual income of pounds 15m. Quite simply, when a club member shops with the card he or she automatically becomes a sponsor of their own club. If it works, the money generated will exceed the sums put in by Allied Dunbar and Sky."

Back to the WWW, where Rugby Network has received a request from the Latvian RFU to develop a coaching structure. "Generally, the IB want to see the game seriously compete with soccer for the No 1 slot on the planet," Sutherland said. "The problem is that currently only about five nations are capable of winning the rugby World Cup. Yet the spread of the game is attracting increasing numbers of nations. The difficulty they face is in the lack of technical expertise to develop the game. While they can buy in players in the short-term, longer-term goals can only be achieved through indigenous development."

Closer to home, the company is working with clubs, helping them to establish a business plan. "The RFU have said they will support clubs financially but not simply so they can go out and buy players," Sutherland said. "They will have to show a need and we can help them by establishing a benchmark."

Meanwhile, a surf of the Internet reveals a "WRU senior coach specialising in back play looking for first-class club"; "New Zealand second row forward seeks club in UK, holder of British passport"; "Qualified sports psychologist looking to enhance the success of an ambitious British club".

Part of Rugby Network's business is to act as agent between club and applicant. It is not part of their business to act as a dating agency. "After Wales toured the US last year," Sutherland said, "we received loads of enquiries from American women about the availability of the Welsh players. It had nothing to do with coaching. It was a bit like Baywatch in reverse."

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