Since international matches were switched to Friday evenings it leaves a heel-kicking void on the succeeding Saturday afternoon for those with minimal interest in football’s lower leagues, although it is always worth a check of the Scottish League One scores if only as a reminder to raise a glass of schadenfreude to Rangers’ misfortune. Which made last weekend’s kick-off of the Heineken Cup doubly welcome. It has become a grand competition and its opening gambit offered a broad sweep of entertainment.
There was of course notable French and English success in Toulon’s barnstorming opening to their title defence and Exeter’s trouncing of Cardiff. But there were also significant victories for the Scots via Edinburgh, Wales via the exuberant Scarlets and Ireland through Ulster. The club game in Europe is in fine fettle, at least on the field. Off it, it is a different matter entirely.
This weekend football’s Premier League is back, striding once more on to centre stage with a dismissive shrug towards the events of the past week. The monkey business is over, now it is on with the big business.
England’s qualification for the World Cup means nothing for the Premier League. International week is one of worry over whether players will return fit from the earth’s four corners and sighs over lost revenues from stadiums standing empty. If international football disappeared it would not unduly concern the club game.
Football is unique among truly global team sports (baseball and American football do not count here – they are regional, ditto rugby league) in that the club game has always been its strongest part.
There has never been a time when international football has been the be-all and end-all. Other sports, as the Olympics demonstrated last year, have the country’s cause as their pinnacle. That is not an attack on football, rather a reflection of the way it is, and has always been. I would rather my club won than my country.
English cricket is the model for the national team being a sport’s endgame. Without the support of the England and Wales Cricket Board there would not be a full-time professional county game. A successful England is vital to the first-class counties, and they do their bit to make it so. English football is at the other end of the spectrum. And in the middle English rugby union sits uneasily.
Since the sport turned professional the club game has made remarkable strides. French clubs, who face fewer salary restrictions, remain the biggest beasts but the English clubs are growing rapidly, and their ambitions have been stirred by the £152m deal with BT Sport. It is threatening to make it a whole different ball game.
Relations with the Rugby Football Union are all down on paper, nearly 200 pages of it detailing how and when players will answer their country’s call and who has what say in it.
Stuart Lancaster has a significant amount of say in how the season is planned for those in his senior squad; not as much as Andy Flower but beyond Roy Hodgson’s wildest dreams. At lower England levels, the Saxons and Under-20, clubs have more say. It is a fine balance and one that by and large looks to be working.
As part of the deal the RFU pays the clubs around £110m spread over the eight years the deal runs – so long as clubs field England players, or England qualified players, or run an approved academy. It is a sum that is beginning to resemble loose change in comparison with the riches the new TV deal brings.
The current agreement ends in 2016 and it will be a very different landscape the two sides will view when they sit down to negotiate a new deal.
Club rugby is now in a different league – in part because of the success of the Heineken Cup – from when the interested parties faced each other in 2007 to thrash out this agreement. By 2015, when the discussions over the new deal kick off, we will (probably) know how the European situation has been resolved.
On Thursday the first cracks appeared in the Anglo-French front when Toulon’s owner, Mourad Boudjellal, said his club would remain in the Heineken Cup next season. This change of heart by one of Europe’s richest clubs is down to a domestic squabble. Boudjellal objects to the French league, with the encouragement of the French union, rather modestly seeking to ensure squads contain more than 50 per cent French-qualified players.
English clubs have not tended to be as strident, or selfish, as their French counterparts but there is a burgeoning desire to run their own world. The European dispute is a long way from being settled and is likely to become angrier. But what the English clubs, for all the bolstered confidence provided by rising bank balances and rising attendances, have to remember is that they still need their country – and their country needs the Welsh, Irish and Scots to remain competitive too.
Club rugby benefits from a successful England. England winning the World Cup in 2003 boosted the club game and England winning the World Cup on home soil in 2015 would bring a massive spin-off to the domestic game. Rugby union as a sport is defined by its international presence, and that needs to be as competitive and broad as possible.
Some English and, in particular, French clubs were accused of trying to persuade Pacific islanders to ignore their countries’ call during the last World Cup and that, for all the International Rugby Board’s attempts to prevent it, is likely to happen again. As French clubs get their hands on more and more Welsh players, an exodus that will quicken if there is no proper European competition, will similar pressures be exerted there?
2015 will be a key moment for rugby union, a key moment for England and a key moment for England’s clubs as they ponder what they want from a new deal with the RFU. Here’s a thought borrowed from a Frenchman, who put it rather neatly: one for all and all for one.
Scotland can enjoy the hopeful glow for a year
England’s return to the top 10 of the world football rankings came at the expense of Croatia, who dropped eight places and lost their manager, Igor Stimac, after being beaten by Scotland for a second time in qualifying.
It was a notable scalp for Gordon Strachan and further evidence of his revival of Scottish fortunes. Afterwards Strachan diverted all praise towards his players but his introduction of double training sessions looks to have had an impact, not least as the opening goal on Tuesday came via an overlap move that had been drilled time and time again on the practice pitch.
But the best thing about another glorious failure – well, sort of glorious if you ignore the defeats to Wales – is this bubble of optimism that cannot be burst for a good year as Scotland don’t play another competitive fixture until the Euro 2016 qualifiers. Which leaves plenty of time to consider who to support in the World Cup…Reuse content