The only surprise about last week, when one investor cut his losses with Harlequins and another issued a dire warning about the game's financial standing, is that it should have come as such a surprise to so many. Anyone capable of mastering the two times table could have foreseen the consequences of rugby's spending spree.
It is just possible, however, that John Beckwith's divorce from Harlequins and Nigel Wray's bleak financial prognosis will prove to be a watershed. Common sense must now prevail. The fact that Harlequins have ended up with even more money to squander as a result of Beckwith's decision to bale out, cannot conceal the grave position facing them and many other clubs.
Whatever he may say in public, Beckwith's association with Harlequins was probably the worst deal he has ever done and it is a measure of his skill as a businessman that he emerged unscathed. As someone who is passionately committed to the development of sport among the young, he must be saddened that Harlequins are now going to spend almost half their million-pound bonus on Zinzan Brooke, who is so far into the twilight of his career that he is unrecognisable as the world's most naturally gifted forward. How much more profitably could that money have been spent on nurturing home grown young talent? What possible benefits will Brooke bring to English rugby? For the player himself, of course, it is the handsomest of pension plans.
By their actions, Harlequins have highlighted almost everything that is wrong with the professional game at club level - blinkered self-interest, short-term gain and poor business practice.
In my frequent rants on the subject during the past year I have been accused of bigotry and much worse in my attitude to the leading clubs and I maintain that much of what they have done has been unforgivable. It is also true, however, that in their attempts to improve standards and raise the profile of the club game, they have achieved an extraordinary amount in a short time. Watching the European Cup matches between Bath and Brive and Leicester and Toulouse this season has been a joy. It provided spectacle, entertainment, skill and genuine competition. No one could ask for more. The game as it was played then has a tremendous future, and many other sports would sell their souls for the profile and media hype surrounding rugby union.
The problem is that at a time when there is so much solid ground upon which to build, the foundations are in danger of crumbling. What should be an irresistible force is fast becoming an unsupportable debt. Before any worthwhile dialogue can begin between the clubs and the Rugby Football Union, there must be the very clear appreciation that so much of rugby's position in the market place at the lower levels depends on the success of the national side. Without that, the profile of the game will plummet and with it the interest.
Nigel Wray, the owner of Saracens, has made the point that no professional club can survive in the present structure of a season so absurdly fragmented, and he is right. But even if Saracens were to play at home every week, there still wouldn't be enough people through the turnstiles to pay the wage bill. Rugby clubs, unlike their football cousins, cannot, and I don't believe ever will, be financially independent of the governing body. The very fact that the leading clubs are having a whip- round to pay for terrestrial television coverage of their own domestic competitions is evidence of their lack of appeal in isolation from headquarters.
If the game is to move forward, it has to be in a spirit of co-operation and understanding between the two parties. Last week there were meetings between the RFU and the clubs from the first and second divisions which were pleasantly free of the discord of last season. Cliff Brittle, who this time last year was being paraded on the RFU's disinformation highway as the largest dinosaur in captivity, is at last being given a chance to show himself in his true colours. But that will come as no surprise to regular readers of this column.
In the outside world there are men with vast experience and creative genius, who are willing and able to help the game. The involvement of Wray in the consultation progress for the RFU's chief executive is to be welcomed. He is a man who is devoted to sport and his love of it transcends his basic business instincts to make money. What he cannot and will not do, however, is to pour money into an enterprise which has no future.
Rugby's priority now is to find common ground. The old Epruc and the new English Rugby Partnership have proved to be a hopelessly inadequate forum for peaceful and prosperous coexistence. A more efficient body will have to be established to run the professional game. There will have to be a properly structured season with a sensible balance between club and international rugby. Above all, there will have to be a complete overhaul of the wage structure.
Lowering the expectation levels of players who are being paid a king's ransom won't be easy, but it will have to be done. It is preposterous that there should be two paymasters, club and country, paying six-figure sums. It certainly doesn't happen in football, where England's players last night were on pounds 1,500 a man. Equally important will be a review of the number of clubs capable of surviving in the professional game.
There is so much to be done and so little time in which to do it, but we can only hope that last week will have knocked some sense into the heads that matter.Reuse content