Rugby Union: Why the Celts need to go it alone

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The Independent Online
JUST ANOTHER humdrum week in the deranged life of rugby union. The Irish have proposed a 75 per cent wage cut for their exiles; Rupert Murdoch's quest to rule the world centres on a rugby explosion in the United States; Jeff Probyn has told the Celts to go and play with themselves; and Frank Warren has been trying to sell Bedford for pounds 1.

Meanwhile England's elite clubs, who convene tomorrow, will be considering various proposals for their future expansion, one of which is based on the franchise concept presented by Cliff Brittle and Fran Cotton last year, a plan contemptuously dismissed by the clubs as being unworkable and unfair. The difference, and it is admittedly some difference, is that the entire operation would be organised and run exclusively for and by the leading clubs, not by the Rugby Football Union.

The driving forces behind these so-called radical initiatives are reported to be Sir John Hall at Newcastle and Saracens' Nigel Wray. Regrettably Wray's appearance on the same branch as the most predatory of the clubs' hawks, and his descent from an apparently reasonable man whose motivation was primarily his love of sport to militant zealot, have put him on a collision course with many of his erstwhile supporters. Wray, it seems, has become increasingly obsessed by the desire to create a rugby culture around a select few clubs on the seriously flawed and unsupported premise that they can in time be self-sufficient.

His argument is based on his limited experience at Saracens, whose success to date in attracting good crowds to Vicarage Road contrasts sharply with what is happening elsewhere. Furthermore, the concessionary schemes initiated by his marketing team at Saracens and the substantial resources given to its operation distort the true picture. The fact is that come May the club will still be uncomfortably in the red. Put simply, the figures continue to make fools of all who believe that club rugby, as it is at present structured, will ever pay its way until, or unless, the clubs' voracious appetite swallows up every one of the game's most valuable possessions, including Twickenham. And, on the basis that if tiddlywinks is the only game in town, it will find supporters, Wray is pressing on regardless.

What the Halls and the Wrays of this world fail to grasp is that if rugby is to survive it must be player-led not spectator-led. There will never be enough widespread appeal to make the club game financially viable, and certainly not for as long as wages continue on their upward spiral. The recent release of the statistics showing the dramatic decline in the number playing rugby is alarming enough. This, combined with the even more spectacular drop in television viewing figures as a result of the Sky deal, provide chilling evidence of a game in serious trouble.

Yet the plans to be discussed by the clubs at tomorrow's meeting would not have been brought to the table had their proposers not believed that they would be given serious consideration. Two things are now clear. The first, as I predicted following the meeting of the Six Nations last month, is that the British League is a non-starter. It was nothing more than a short-term expedient to bring sense to the English clubs' agreement with Cardiff and Swansea until such time as the accord was officially sanctioned. The working party will no doubt continue to go through the motions and both sides will claim an interest in taking the proposal forward but it will never get off the ground. The second certainty is that the clubs in Premiership Two of the Allied Dunbar League will very soon be cut adrift by the big boys. This is not a game for the weak and the clubs in the second division and even those at the lower end of the first are getting weaker by the day.

The RFU's policy towards their clubs is patently obvious. Rebuke them occasionally in private but in public allow them to do whatever they want. Up until the close of business on Friday the RFU had not filed a response to the clubs' complaint to the European Commission. This fuels the suspicion that even if they do eventually get round to sending a response it will not be the vigorous defence promised to the International Rugby Board in May. The Mayfair Agreement is, even on the admission of those who were the architects of it, a worthless document, a chapter of promises broken by the clubs. There is no hope for the foreseeable future of the creation of a level of rugby bridging the gap between the club and the international game. The RFU must therefore accept the consequences of signing up to one of the most ill-considered charters in sporting history.

Which brings us to Jeff Probyn, the RFU's special adviser on the development and promotion of racial harmony. Last week he advised the Celts to stop pestering England and to go off and do their own thing. For once, I think he's right. For the Celts there could now be an opportunity to break free from the sterility of their domestic structures. The Irish have made a start but they are no closer to producing a national side which can compete with the best. The Scots, with the establishment of their two super districts and facing stiff resistance from within their own ranks, have a perilous journey ahead and a long way still to travel. The Welsh are not yet out of their nosedive.

The Celtic League would comprise four regional sides from Wales and two each from Scotland and Ireland. The players would have to be qualified to play for their countries, be resident locally and be contracted to their unions. A joint Celtic resources group could be established covering everything from coaching initiatives to development at school level, and if it was creatively marketed the league would be sure to have an appeal for sponsors and broadcasters.

There would, however, have to be a second tier provided by a European competition. The key to this would be the participation of English and French clubs whose substantial contribution both numerically and in raising the standards would have to be recognised by giving them the main share of the income derived. Not only would this be reasonable but it would be a small price to pay for the eventual resurrection of a sport which is fast fading into oblivion.

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