The Way Forward? Try going in same direction

Union and discord: As the RFU seek to revive England's fortunes, how should they tackle the key issues?
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The Independent Online

Once they were kings, now they cannot beat Argentina at Twickenham. In the light of England's collapse the Rugby Football Union are embarking on a review - The Way Forward - to end all reviews. It will, they say, be the "biggest, most comprehensive, clinical, factual and exhausting" search for a new structure designed to revive the Red Rose.

They will even consult on what goes into the consultation document. Those charged with delivering the plan are Francis Baron, the chief executive, Martyn Thomas, the chairman of the management board, and Rob Andrew, the elite director of rugby.

In 2000 Andrew, who was then the director of rugby at Newcastle, produced a blueprint that was considered ahead of its time. He was thanked for the visionary Andrew Plan - and the RFU promptly binned it. "People couldn't get their heads around it," Andrew said. "The financial state of the game is much better now and we have a lot longer to address what is bedevilling England. This is going to be a most significant piece of work. We have to find a solution once and for all. There's no doubt we have the most complex playing structure in world rugby."

The players are contracted to the clubs, who "lease" them to England, who complain they do not get enough quality time. The clubs think the RFU want to muscle in on every facet of the professional game; the RFU think the same of the clubs. They often threaten to settle differences in the High Court, stating views that belong in the Twickenham museum.

Given the deep distrust between the Union and the Premiership clubs, what are the chances of finding common ground?

Not great, though Baron says that England's demise has concentrated minds. "I accept there's baggage and history but now there's a hell of a lot of goodwill. We're starting to move in the same direction. We're no longer fighting about training time for the elite squad... We've moved on from the clubs saying they'll give us another five days if we give them another £5m."

Isn't a successful England good for everybody?

When they won the World Cup in Australia in 2003 it seemed the whole country rejoiced. Sir Clive Woodward was compared to Sir Alf Ramsey, Jonny Wilkinson to Geoff Hurst. In the feelgood glow, 30,000 players joined clubs in England, along with 1,800 coaches, 1,600 referees and 11,000 volunteers. The Premiership clubs benefited from bigger attendances but England's slump has slashed RFU profits by 30 per cent.

Why is there a lot of talk about central contracts?

England look enviously to the southern hemisphere, and indeed Ireland, where all the leading players are contracted to their countries. The Way Forward will look at other sports, including cricket. When England won the Ashes, it highlighted the virtue of central contracts. The players hardly played for their counties. When they lost them 5-0, CCs did not look half as endearing.

Why is promotion and relegation such a key issue?

It affects the nervous system of the Premiership clubs and alters their philosophy. They view going down as a death sentence, although that ain't necessarily so. Look at Harlequins. Better still, look at Bristol. When danger beckons, squads are beefed up by imports, which means hardly any game time for the young homegrown academy players and that in turn has a knock-on effect for England.

Players seem to spend half their time recovering from injuries. What's going on?

Professionalism means they are bigger, faster, fitter, and the hits are harder and more frequent. Player welfare is now top of the agenda yet there is only one real solution: fewer games - but that means less income. "There'll be no more careers like Jason Leonard's," says Thomas. "They are destroying their bodies. At the top end there's too much rugby, yet at the academy end the young are hardly playing at all. We want to see the white jerseys winning and players free of injury."

Last Sunday one newspaper said the RFU would launch a Super 10, with Richmond and Bedford getting franchises. Any truth in this?

None. It was from Walter Mitty out of Walt Disney. Andrew says it was laughable, but the RFU weren't laughing. "We have some great clubs in the Guinness Premiership and we want to build on those," Baron said. What does concern the RFU is the lack of modern stadiums: three of London's top four clubs share football grounds. "The Government talks a good game but has failed to deliver," Thomas says. "Just look at what they do in France."

Talking of France, what's going on in the Heineken Cup?

Once again the French are revolting. They see the Heineken as a mere aperitif to their club championship, which attracts so much television money it is not only their bread and butter but comes with a little pot of caviar. The French, and the English, believe they get only a fraction of what they deserve from the European competition and they would make loads more money if they took over the running of it. It is run by ERC with the six nations as stakeholders. The so-called Paris Accord will be reviewed in July - by the Paris Discord.

So there is plenty to chew over but where is the give and take?

It is possible that England, who make a mint out of the autumn Tests, could reduce their programme, easing the burden on clubs like Sale and Leicester, who lose up to half their players. If the compensation was improved they could replace the Test men but that would mean an increase to the salary cap or exemption from it. There could be a further concession in the Heineken, though a French withdrawal devalues everything. A franchise system would only be acceptable to the clubs if they awarded them. As for a new structure, most are agreed that in an ideal world the season would be blocked off into league rugby, followed by Europe, with the Six Nations as the climax. It is possible, of course, that The Way Forward is anything but. It may be that England won the World Cup not through structures or systems, but for the simple reason they had the best team - and at the moment they haven't.

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