Rugby Union: Prophet of survival business

Chris Rea discovers that help will soon be at hand for embattled clubs
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The Independent Online
As someone who has lost much more than his shirt attempting to publish a second rugby magazine in a market scarcely able to accommodate one, I was intrigued and not a little sceptical at last week's announcement of a new publication due to be launched in October.

But this one, entitled Running Rugby, is not what it seems. It is concerned not with how to achieve success on the field, but with the business of survival off it and, given that the biggest money in the next three or four years is likely to be made by accountants entrusted with the task of clearing up the financial debris left by the clubs' reckless entry into professionalism, this is a journal which could have a longer than usual shelf life.

Running Rugby is the brainchild of Kim Conchie, a former player and now a managing director of the publishing company Brass Tacks, which in the past has produced work for the Rugby Football Union. But Conchie is quick to stress that the magazine is entirely independent of the RFU. Were it not, it would be dead in the water as far as the clubs are concerned.

Running Rugby is designed to assist the development of the game at all levels but now that professionalism, like the weather, will always be with us, it is primarily aimed at clubs for whom rugby union has become a business. It will give information on a whole range of topics from marketing and clubhouse management to ground care, stewarding and contracts. There will be specialist writers offering financial and legal advice as well as a host of ideas for fund-raising.

The popular perception of rugby union is of a game awash with money and a queue of investors, sponsors and advertisers clamouring to get in. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that the professional game is being run in the most amateur of fashions, with debts soaring at an alarming rate.

It is not Running Rugby's intention to conceal those problems but to provide constructive and practical ways of solving them. The magazine will not be on sale in the shops. Circulation will be to all the constituent bodies of the RFU and to the clubs. Each senior club will receive 10 copies, middle clubs five and the clubs in the lower divisions three. The initial print run will be 25,000 and, according to Conchie, the early signs are encouraging. With three weeks still to go until the launch he is not far short of achieving his target of pounds 36,000 from the advertising upon which the publication must rely for its survival.

Even more fascinating than the positions in the Allied Dunbar Premiership will be the league table of top earners in English rugby followed swiftly by the league of debtors. Any bets on the eventual champions?

It should not take Running Rugby long to reach the conclusion that the shambolic structure of the English season cannot continue. Playing competitive matches in August is nonsensical. Apart from denying those who have been on summer tours proper rest, it is the month in which most supporters of the game take their holidays.

Instead of getting off to a bang the opening matches were depressingly low key, and made all the more dismal by the laudable but tackily contrived efforts of the clubs to lift the spectators' spirits. Rugby league has already jumped through this particular hoop. For them blaring music, dancing troupes and giant video screens are old hat but, as the Bradford Bulls have shown, only the best will suffice. Anything less is not worth having, especially in the London area where, in terms of entertainment, the best is so widely available.

It has to be said though that shabby as some of it was, the pre-match fare was of a higher quality than the rugby in the first three weeks of the season. One or two of the Heineken European matches have been lifted out of the mire of mediocrity but the general standard has been poor. There is surprise in some quarters that this should be so and that the example set by the Lions in South Africa has not been followed. Why there should be this bewilderment defeats me. For the last 25 years the lessons taught by the Southern Hemisphere have been largely ignored in this country, so why should this season be different?

There are, of course, some mitigating factors. Pre-season fitness training has clearly been much too rigorous at some clubs. There are far too many tired limbs and over-stretched muscles. The other point to make is that professionalism has brought a much higher degree of efficiency, which is channelled first of all into defence on the simple premise that if you do not lose a point you cannot lose the match. It is also relatively easy to organise a defence. It is much harder to invent ingenious methods of attack and to engineer openings by imaginative change of angles, pace and timing.

We can only hope that the creative juices start to flow soon, otherwise Running Rugby will hit the buffers before it leaves the blocks.