When Northampton and Gloucester usher in the 2014-15 English rugby union season at the human sardine tin known as Franklin’s Gardens on Friday night – the fight over the oval ball means infinitely more than the pursuit of the round one to the people of both towns, so you won’t be able to move in there – they will do it against the backdrop of an escalating argument about the 2015-16 season. There’s forward-thinking for you. The sport may not be wholly free of medievalists with handlebar moustaches who would return us to the age of Dr Arnold, but those people are stranded ever more helplessly on the wrong side of history. These days, the union game is as modern as modern gets.
Modernity is at the heart of this latest spat between the Rugby Football Union and the senior clubs it once ruled with a rod of reinforced iron – clubs who have learnt how to stand up for themselves and have grown used to the taste of victory, both political and commercial. As things stand, the Premiership teams are threatening to play league matches next September, thereby offering an alternative attraction to the home World Cup, the pool stage of which will be unfolding at precisely the same time. And they are doing it for two reasons, which happen to be… political and commercial.
To take the second issue first, they object to the meagre level of compensation currently being offered by the RFU, claiming it does not even begin to ease the financial burden of shutting down the business of professional club rugby for weeks on end. So far, so simple. But more than that, they are profoundly cheesed off at what they consider to be Twickenham’s high-handedness in signing the World Cup host agreement – a document that specifically forbids major domestic matches being played during the tournament – without a word of consultation. It is this perceived breach of good faith that poses the gravest threat to relations between the two sides.
But there is a far wider problem here, concerning the insufferable sense of entitlement common to organisations running major sporting tournaments of every stripe. It is now taken as read by the International Olympic Committee that a host nation’s tax laws will be flushed down the nearest loo the moment the Games loom into view. A promise of exemption from income tax, corporation tax and all the rest of it is part and parcel of the bidding process and if this painful truth has the average Treasury official spluttering over his pinstripes – according to some estimates, the £2.7bn generated by the 2012 Olympics in London might, under different conditions, have realised £600m in revenues – so be it. Who needs a dozen new hospitals when Usain Bolt will soon be lolloping down a track near you?
Needless to say, Fifa pulls the same kind of stunt – if recent Qatar-connected revelations are to be believed – whenever the football World Cup is up for grabs: another grotesque example of one rule for them and another for the rest of us. If Sepp Blatter and Co demand tax breaks for their increasingly questionable organisation, they get them. If we demand a break from Sepp Blatter, we’re told to sit down and shut up. What we should do, of course, is tell Fifa to bugger off and stage its tournament in Luxembourg or the Cayman Islands, where people breathe in tax avoidance with the morning air.
Just last week, the International Rugby Board announced plans to rebrand itself as “World Rugby” – presumably because the word “international” is too small-scale these days, too Mickey Mouse. First prize for grandiloquence, bottom of the class for relevance. It is not hard to think of a better use of delegates’ time. They might, for instance, have revisited their own protocols and asked themselves exactly why their World Cup needs the rest of the world to stop turning. Is it really fair to tell Northampton and Gloucester that they cannot play each other because Namibia are taking on the Galapagos Islands?
The union game’s governing class is less obviously self-important than it once was – the average IRB member is almost a man of the people compared to his Fifa brethren, many of whom could strut sitting down – but when it comes to World Cups, the ingrained superiority complex quickly resurfaces. You can almost hear them asking: “Do you know who we are?” To which the response should always be: “Who the hell do you think you are?”