In 1995, the rugby world as we knew it undertook arguably the greatest transformation it had seen since its creation in 1823 by sporting genius William Webb Ellis when the game finally went publicly professional.
The brief war between the Kerry Packer-backed World Rugby Corporation and the forces of Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited eventually found common ground and rugby appeared to seamlessly get on with game.
Four World Cups later, however, is the game of rugby really in union with itself, or are the winds of rebellion stirring again?
If you were to look at the game internationally, the rugby world appears somewhat calm above the surface.
The current world champions are arguably one of the greatest sides ever to play the game, the British and Irish Lions had a successful tour of Australia and each hemisphere enjoys a regional international competition that enjoys support globally.
All is well, right?
Perhaps not. The scab on the knee of global rugby that is relentlessly picked at and refuses to heal is the professional game at the provincial or elite club level and its current disparity between countries.
Unless this sore is cured the infection may spread to rebellion yet again, and the signs are there that provincially, rugby is anything but in union. The IRB should sit up and pay attention.
Presently in the southern hemisphere the SANZAR-administered Super Rugby tournament largely enjoys support and participation by local talent as it remains the pathway to Test caps, the childhood dream.
The same can’t be said for Northern Hemisphere rugby at present, which appears in turmoil over the structure of elite competition and the manner in which clubs qualify.
It is no secret that when it comes to money and rugby, France is your destination.
The elite players in Europe are drawn by the pay cheque, which has already been shown to affect international selection. In the November tests of 2013, Perpignan did not release Welsh internationals Luke Charteris and James Hook, while Bath withheld Paul James for the Test against Australia due to it being outside the ‘window’.
Here is another ‘window’ to look through– the Queensland Reds will not release Quade Cooper for the Wallaby Tests against France in 2014.
Now that is not going to happen for a raft of reasons, yet that is essentially what we are seeing in the Northern Hemisphere.
Clearly, when it comes to the two hemispheres and how they each administer their elite provincial rugby, they are hemispheres apart in every sense of the word.
It that a rugby world in union?
In an interview with The Telegraph on 5 January, former English and British Lions hooker Brian Moore said, “It would also open up the possibility of a dominant league like football’s English Premier League. Despite contrary claims, the reality is that the French clubs, without an effective restraining salary cap, pay the biggest money.
“This is clearly evidenced by the fact that the Aviva Premiership and Pro12 have lost leading players to the Top 14. The only way to counter it would be for other Unions to decree that any players playing in the Top 14 would be considered less favourably than those playing domestically.”
What happens when the lure of the almighty Dollar, Euro, Pound or Yen exceeds the desire to sing your national anthem, grab your nation’s crest, shed a tear and thank Mum and Dad for taking you to junior rugby?
Elite provincial or club rugby becomes more powerful than the international game because they can pay more if their TV deals and sponsorship’s are negotiated well.
Furthermore, selection is less competitive, perhaps enabling a longer playing career or earning capacity to ensue.
Players will eventually resent unions who disqualify them from international selection if they are playing abroad and not staying at home to get paid less in the domestic competition, thus hurting some domestic competitions.
While I don’t think rugby has reached that stage yet, there is evidence that clubs are starting to influence too much power.
It appears that rugby has arguably botched professionalism considering such issues; issues that arguably would not have arisen if the World Rugby Corporation was entirely successful in their goals.
Now that the fog of the rugby war has cleared I ponder the question: “What if WRC won?”
In considering this I am convinced there would not be the elite club provincial issues that I have mentioned. It has been reported to me that the WRC was not interested in breaking away from the unions, more so getting the unions to embrace professionalism under their (WRC’s) corporate governance.
The Unions would still ‘run the game’, with the WRC owning the television rights to a global provincial rugby competition.
There simply would not be a disparity in one domestic competition dominating another by the ability to pay more money. Eligibility windows would not exist.
Finally countries like Scotland and Wales would not see a drain of elite players moving abroad to play rugby. Local fans could see their stars perform at home.
Rugby players are starting to flock to France and Japan for the pay cheque. How is that so and how is that sustainable when France is ranked fifth and Japan fourteenth on the IRB world rankings?
It’s because their clubs appear to be getting more powerful than their unions and can attract bigger salaries than the domestic or even national unions of non-French and Japanese players.
Is this a sustainable vacuum that is being created? I tend to think not. How does this benefit the growth of the game?
The professional players have every right to ply their trade where they can, but where where is this taking rugby?
How long can the lure of a Test cap compete with serious money and why is the serious money provincially centered on two markets where one really is a tier one side (who I might say has never won a World Cup) and the other a minnow?
It’s illogical if you took money out of the equation.
There is an argument that the Test cap adds an extra zero onto you pay packet. For now perhaps, but what about schoolboy rugby stars being groomed by Japanese and French clubs as opposed to their home unions?
There are some warning signs on the horizon for rugby. The IRB should be advised that it is anything but professional to allow domestic markets to potentially threaten the international game.