Rugby Union: Rugby's faith in television money is flawed thinking

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The Independent Online
IT WAS, I assume, a coincidence that the plans for the future of rugby framed by Rob Andrew and by Dr Tony O'Reilly (whom God preserve) appeared within days of each other. They dovetailed together like a piece of 18th century joinery. Alas, this does not necessarily mean that they are going to leave the workshop and come into general use.

Though I lay no claim to financial expertise, I do not think that raising money on the security of future earnings is going to prove the easiest enterprise in the world. Future earnings are never exactly secure; even less so if the bulk are expected to derive from television.

Rupert Murdoch might decide to turn his attention elsewhere. ITV has only recently acquired an interest in the game, which may be lost as easily as it was gained. The BBC (which may well cease to be a public corporation altogether in the next decade) has announced its return to rugby with the start of this season's Heineken Cup.

But so far the corporation's coverage has been disappointing, not so much in quality as in quantity. Proper coverage would require the BBC to televise a complete live match on Saturday, on Sunday and, possibly, on Friday as well. What we have been given instead is one Saturday match, and a shortened match together with a round-up on Sunday.

The gaps have been filled by that mysterious organisation, British Eurosport. It has some good commentators, notably Dr Gwyn Jones. But few viewers are in a position to see it.

Television is, by its nature, a fickle and treacherous medium. Do you remember how Rugby Special disappeared? There it was, much criticised, but nevertheless finally a recognised part of late Sunday afternoon or early evening. And then, all of a sudden, it was gone, poof! In a puff of smoke, with no word of explanation, still less of justification. Newspapers are, by contrast, an oasis of stability and calm.

The only security which the four home unions can offer, in a prudent banker's sense of the word, is in the land and bricks-and-mortar of the stadiums they own. As these are heavily mortgaged already, which is part of the trouble - at any rate they are in England and Wales - they do not strike me as the most solid of securities. Still, I hope I am proved wrong.

Andrew's plan, like Dr O'Reilly's scheme, is not so much predicated on stability as designed to bring about that desirable condition. Hence the proposal for one premier professional division of 12 clubs with no promotion or relegation for four years.

This strikes me as sensible. Ever since professionalisation, each season has produced an unedifying dispute about how many clubs the top league is to contain and, connectedly, about how many are to be promoted or relegated. It was such a dispute which led to the destructive and vindictive annihilation of London Scottish and Richmond.

Is the new set up to last forever, just as - until next year - the cricket championship contained 18 counties? Andrew proposes three clubs each from the North, the Midlands, London and the South-west. There is no difficulty about the last: Bath, Bristol and Gloucester clearly qualify. Nor is there any trouble about London: Saracens, Wasps and either Harlequins or London Irish. But the North is less simple: Newcastle, Sale and... who else? Rotherham? Leeds? There is a similar difficulty with the Midlands: Leicester and Northampton, as they say, choose themselves. But who should occupy the third position? Bedford are struggling, while Coventry - once the most feared side in England - are but a shadow of their former selves.

Andrew favours the home unions over the clubs. But of the unions, it is the Rugby Football Union which stands to gain most. Tom Walkinshaw, the aggressive chairman of Gloucester - who was principally responsible for the extirpation of London Irish and Richmond - has proposed a British league containing the Welsh clubs, Cardiff, Llanelli and Swansea. The clubs have welcomed it, as in more guarded terms has the Welsh Rugby Union. Wales has missed the old Anglo-Welsh fixtures more than England has.

Andrew's plan makes to provision for Wales. Why should it? But Welsh clubs want to play English clubs as they do not want to play Scottish clubs - even though on 1999 form Scotland rather than England were the outstanding side from the British Isles. I see no solution unless the Andrew plan is modified to embrace an extended league of 15 clubs, with three from Wales, or a diminished league of 10, with two from Wales.

Still, all credit to Rob Andrew in particular for his proposal that the Six Nations' Championship should be played at the end of the season. To all my readers, a Happy Christmas. Or, as we say in Wales, Nadolig Llawen.

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