Mark Evans: 'Is it healthy for rugby to rely on a handful of rich men?'

As Quins' outspoken chief executive Mark Evans steps down, he tells Chris Hewett that a money-dominated Premiership will bring ruin
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The Independent Online

English rugby has never been renowned for its radicalism – Twickenham man struggles to cope with a change of gin in the council members' bar, let alone a change of mindset – but almost despite itself, the game has spawned a freethinker or two over the years.

Clive Woodward put the cat among the pigeons on more than one occasion, as did the Northampton owner, Keith Barwell, during his anti-authoritarian "rights of man" phase. But it may well be that nobody has thought as freely as Mark Evans over the course of an 11-year career at Harlequins. Now he is gone, who will take on the role of iconoclast-in-chief?

Candidates are not exactly beating down the door, so it may be some time before the hole opened up by Evans' departure is closed again. This much is certain, though: with the economy in its present state and Premiership wage bills accounting for an ever greater share of the monies generated by top-flight domestic competition, the sport cannot afford a prolonged period of intellectual stagnation. If nothing else, it might do well to listen to a few Evansisms as he gives voice to them on his way to pastures new.

Try this one for size. "We are in thrall to the idea of the market in this country," he says. "We believe that if the market doesn't solve something, there is no solution to be found. In the sporting context, all the evidence from around the world gives the lie to that belief, but we can't seem to get past it. It's garbage. It's intellectually flabby and completely wrong-headed. If we allow market forces to operate untrammelled – let's say through the sanctioning of another significant hike in the salary cap, or scrapping it altogether – the dream of making professional rugby union a genuinely national game will be an impossible dream."

Evans left his full-time post as Quins chief executive a few days ago to set up his own sports consultancy. He emphasises that his decision has nothing to do with any hangover from the fake blood scandal that scarred the club in 2009, although he was seriously affected by the events that happened on his watch. "I'm 51, and if I don't jump now, I'll be here until I'm 60," he explains. "Eleven years is enough. I think I've done a half-decent job, and feel I leave the club in a good place. In many ways, the really heavy lifting has been done."

Does he believe the club game in general to be in a good place? This is a slightly different story, for he suspects it has been constructed on shaky foundations. He does not blame anyone in particular: as coach of Saracens when the game went open in 1995 and Nigel Wray emerged from the mist with his millions, he experienced the great upheaval at first hand and has always sympathised with those who discovered the truth of the old line about good intentions and the road to hell. Neither does he fear that club rugby as England has come to know it is in any sense doomed. Having served Quins as chief executive, director of rugby and coach – at one point, he did all three jobs simultaneously, which said as much for his energy as it did for his ability – he has helped establish rugby as a spectator sport in south-west London by driving a quadrupling of the average gate at the Stoop, introduced the concept of the "big game" moneyspinner by moving the occasional home match to Twickenham and taken the famous old London club as close to viability as makes no difference.

But he is in no doubt that a better model exists, if only those at the top were bold enough to piece it together. "I remain," he says, "an unashamed supporter of a franchise system. Do we really think it's healthy for our sport to be dependent on the largesse of a small group of individuals? Please. Do we really want to see more clubs disappear and more areas of the country become barren land for union? It still grieves me to think of what has happened to Wakefield and West Hartlepool and Moseley. I hope this doesn't happen, but the same thing could happen to Bristol. People say that for every one of those, there has been a Worcester and an Exeter. I don't buy that.

"A franchise system would make growing the game infinitely easier. For a start, it would be possible to introduce differential funding – a system used with great success in Australian Rules. They understood that a new team like the Sydney Swans, based in a rugby league hotbed, could not possibly compete from the get-go with the long-established teams in Melbourne without a lot of help. What happened? They gave them more money from the central pot than everyone else received as a means of accelerating their development. It was the kind of bright thinking that helped make Aussie Rules the biggest sporting success story in the country, and one of the biggest in the world.

"We could do that here, with rugby. Given certain conditions, it is possible to build a successful club virtually from scratch. You need a town of around 100,000 people, with another 400,000 or so in the surrounding catchment area. You need a location with very little professional football, preferably none at all, and no rival regional passion, like rugby league in the north. The places that spring to mind are Cornwall, Kent and, probably, Cambridge. But the only way it can happen under the present system is through some wondrous individual act of philanthropy, and who in their right mind is going to spend £20m on a stadium and God knows how much more on players in the knowledge that it could take six years to reach the Premiership and one to be relegated? There's a word for that, and it's 'madness'.

"Strange as it may sound, coming from someone who has worked in the professional club game through all the political battles with the Rugby Football Union, the only organisation with enough clout to push through a really ambitious programme of change is the governing body, but I'm not convinced it truly knows what it wants to see on its territory. In fact, I don't think many of the people there have the faintest clue what they're after. I first played rugby in England when I was 21. I'm 51 now, and I'm not at all sure they have any better idea now than they had then. The issue of the optimum framework for professional club rugby here has been filed away in the back of the 'too difficult' cabinet."

In Evans' view, the salary cap debate currently being staged by the Premiership power brokers must be won by those arguing against a rise – that is to say, those not representing Leicester, Northampton, Saracens and Bath, who just happen to be four of the five wealthiest clubs in the country. The free-marketeers point to the leading French clubs, who have mega-budgets that are growing more mega by the season and, as a consequence of their ability to attract players, are the dominant force in the European rugby economy. It is not an argument Evans finds persuasive. "If players want to go, let 'em," he says. "We have the biggest playing population of any country. Isn't it just a little paranoid to be worrying about that?

"There are all sorts of reasons why French rugby generates the money it does," he continues, "but the biggest one is this: you can draw a line across from Bordeaux, down the Rhône and run it from Provence in the east to Biarritz in the far south-west. There are around 25 million people living in that area, and if you take Marseilles out of it, rugby is the main spectator sport. Nowhere else in the world is there a bigger market, and if you add the regeneration of rugby in Paris – a capital city with one professional football team, as opposed to London's 14 – it will take a lot more than a rise in the salary cap to compete on their terms.

"We have to think differently. If you want the English club game to amount to three or four Gullivers playing in Lilliput – if you want to create the rugby version of Scottish football – a spike in the salary cap now will take you there. Is that where people want to be? God, I hope not."