Peter Bills: ELVs threaten worldwide split

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The Independent Online

Will rugby union witness another seismic split in 2009, this time between the northern and southern hemispheres?

The threat lingers, unspoken at this time chiefly because most of the rugby men of the southern hemisphere have gone off to soak up the rays on the beaches of Camps Bay (Cape Town), Bondi (Sydney) and the 1000 mile beach stretching north of Auckland to Whangarei in New Zealand’s beautiful Bay of Islands.

Make no mistake, though, the southern hemisphere is waiting and watching with huge interest the outcome of deliberations into the trialled ELVs now being staged in the northern hemisphere season.

Australian Rugby Union Chief Executive John O’Neill might say some outrageous things at times, but the game is a fool if it fails to heed his words. O’Neill runs a sport surrounded by rivals – rugby league, Aussie Rules, basketball and swimming to mention just a few. Trying to make a quid or two among that sort of competition requires ingenuity, cunning and above all, a highly desirable product.

Entertainment, in case you forgot, became an essential requirement of rugby union the minute this sport opted to take the professional road. It meant it was entering the entertainment business and it needs to do just that, entertain.

No use demanding that it clings to all its old, traditional ways, like rolling mauls covering 35 metres and moving forwards about as slowly as some Allied advance on the Western Front in 1917. No good lamenting the abandoning of century-old ways and means. When you’re competing for the public’s sporting dollar, you gotta offer a product that people rush to buy.

John O’Neill is one of the few men who understands this implicitly. When you’re encircled by rivals all thrusting their hands out for the public’s cash, you know that your product must be lively, exciting, tough and unpredictable.

Under the new ELVs trialled in the southern hemisphere earlier this year, rugby moved much closer to the ethos of speed and entertainment. The game opened up significantly; there was greater movement, more running and the ball spent more time in play.

I know, I know; the critics slam it as headless chicken stuff. They also lambasted it as a so-called cheat’s charter. But both factors can be addressed. Sin binning from the start players killing the ball would erode that problem and as the new style settled, the headless chicken charge would become less justified.

Yet given the northern hemisphere’s palpable reluctance to move forward, there could be a huge split at the IRB conference to discuss the effects of the ELVs, this March or April. And for countries like Australia, a clear dilemma may arise. “We’re not going back to the old ways; under these ELVs, rugby can promote a better, more entertaining product” says O’Neill.

If Australia maintain that stance, New Zealand may go along with it, forcing South Africa into a quandary over whether to support their southern hemisphere rivals. Huge bad feeling would arise within SANZAR, if they didn’t.

That might split the whole game. For the fact is, with a worldwide recession raging, men like John O’Neill know well enough that there is precious little room for slack. If rugby is seen to turn its back on the faster game possible under the ELVs, income is likely to suffer in the southern hemisphere. Will countries like Australia, already heavily in debt, risk their whole financial future in the form of diminishing crowds and interest, by meekly accepting the dyed-in-the-wool attitudes of the northern hemisphere countries? I wonder.

Talk of a worldwide split might seem over dramatic. But then, when you’ve been down to Sydney and talked to people like O’Neill and listened to their difficulties in selling the game to a limited audience blessed with multiple sporting choices, you understand more precisely their predicament.

No-one is pretending that all the trialled new laws are magnificent. But in a professional sport, to turn your back on the future and the need to develop a product that entertains, risks the whole future health of the game. It may well be that the huge population numbers and traditions of the game in most northern hemisphere countries dictates rugby’s rulers in this part of the world can anticipate loyalty and ongoing support no matter what the entertainment level.

It isn’t like that in Australia and New Zealand, where they’re fighting to retain support, never mind find new followers. If the other IRB countries do not understand that completely and are unwilling to be amenable to change, then they’d better understand the dangers of a worldwide split are hugely enhanced.