I wrote a similar article to this four years ago. It was entitled something like “Let’s sneak up and bite them on the bum”.
Rugby union is a relatively recent invention. World Rugby, the governing body of this sport, is even more recent.
Neither, it has to be said, are so new that they are historically unrecognisable, the latter especially so. Indeed, in its current self-delighting imperial phase it has acquired an increasing resemblance to modes of thinking and acting that were popular nearly 3,500 years ago in Greece.
In ancient times the Greeks considered Delphi, on the slopes of Mt. Parnassus, to be the centre of the world and the source of divine wisdom but lesser shrines of divination were found throughout the region.
Petitioners in need of advice would attend, make strict sacrifice along strict lines, and only then receive advice from a ritually prepared personality known as the Pythia who spoke in a state of entrancement.
Such advice, however, was frequently unintelligible and in any case the ritual required that it be written down and interpreted by the temple’s priests – who then passed it on in highly ambiguous verse. Failing to interpret the advice accurately was a step on the way to ruin.
What has all of this got to do with rugby? Unfortunately, a quite a lot just at this time and
right now, the focus should be on two oracular developments. The first is on a proposed “post-2019 concept” competition variously referred to as the “league of nations” or the World Rugby League, both descriptions being unfortunate for anyone versed in the historical facts of the last 100 years or so.
Equally unfortunate is the lack of transparency attending it.
It is to be an annual competition between the 12 Tier 1 teams of the northern and southern hemispheres in non-RWC years. From here on the utterances get Delphic. It might, involve semi-finals, or it might just be a playoff between the two top sides, and it could start in 2020.
Uncertainty is dispatched as to where these events will not take place, however: anywhere in the southern hemisphere.
The rationale for this arrangement in the first place is that the current June and November arrangements are undervalued and / or meaningless. So dismissed are the Cook Cup Australia–England), the Hillary Shield (New Zealand–England), and the Dave Gallaher Trophy New Zealand–France). Second, there will be an increased cash flow to all concerned.
The form it will take is confusing in the knowledge that, unlike the northern hemisphere, the southern hemisphere does not have six Tier 1 teams, just four. Nevertheless, the plan is for the former to come south with each side team playing three Tests against three different opposition in the July international window. In the November window the southern sides will reciprocate and travel north, also playing three Tests against different oppositions. Thereafter the finals.
All that is required for this to even begin to make sense is a biblical loaves and fishes increase in the available offerings of the south.
We must then understand that the existing Rugby Championship, again according to various reports, will be reduced – presumably to a single round – or simply abolished. Neither is consistent with other reports that teams will carry forward the points they earn in the Rugby Championship and the Six Nations Championship, respectively.
Either way, the home-and-away Rugby Championship would appear to be doomed to mutilation or extinction while the Six Nations would continue unchanged.
At this stage the logic becomes baffling, especially with regard to the heralded financial bonanza. This, we are assured, will flow from the three Tests against the visiting northern sides – yet this situation is remarkably similar to the current arrangement which is allegedly meaningless and undervalued.
The question that needs answering is whether gate receipts and broadcasting rights will appreciably increase because, given other developments that will be imperative in the light of the revised or extinct Rugby Championship.
If we assume a revised Rugby Championship surviving as just a three-Test series per national team, then two of the SANZAAR nations will host only one home game per year. In other words it will take two years to complete a full cycle of home-and-away games. In the lean one of those years the revenue from hosting three as opposed to one Test will be lost, and broadcasters will be paying for three Tests, not six.
Something akin to religious faith in the Oracle enters at this point. Steve Tew, CEO of the New Zealand Rugby Union, talks of generating more revenue “if”, repeat “if”, the July and November windows can be used better.
The inference here is that a major change in the status quo is under way based on a belief in contingency. Worse, the project proceeds without the existing revenue model – which has the northern hosts keep all proceeds of inwards Tests – unchanged. Indeed, according to Tew, the discussions on how to allocate whatever new revenue is generated have not even begun.
At the very least the revenue generated must be equal to the revenue lost by the reduction in the Rugby Championship Tests. And that is only to break even financially. Even then what remains is the fundamental problem that increased revenue is meant to address: the extraordinary financial pulling power of the Tier 1 northern hemisphere clubs, particularly in England and France.
If there is a windfall, then on the basis of history and so-called market logic, the northern unions will benefit just as much as, and quite probably more than their southern counterparts, thus enabling them by various means to provide the premiums which are beyond the latter’s resources.
In this we should understand that the northern clubs, though not international entities in their own right, will probably be among the first in line even if scarcely visible. As it is, in England, they are receiving enormous subventions from what is grandiosely styled as The Rugby Union for the purpose of releasing their players for national team duties.
At the same time they are, in reality, a contradiction: profligate mendicants. On the one hand they are paying handsomely for their players while, on the other, they are in a parlous financial position.
A recent article by Paul Rees in The Guardian reports that the leading Premiership club, Wasps, has doubled its pre-tax loss over the last two years – from £4.7 million to £9.7 million – and now has a net debt standing at £56 million.
Is the ‘league of nations’ really going to turn these fortunes around when the evidence suggests that, in purely economic terms, the problem is with an unsustainable business model which indulges an addiction to luxury goods in certain quarters of the Premiership – both of which are overseen by a holding company (The Rugby Union) which governs but does not rule.
To this concern we must add the further confusion resulting from announcements concerning the July tours which were made alongside those above. Ireland, for example, will journey south for two Tests against Australia and one against a Tier 2 opposition in 2020; in 2021 they will play two Tests against Tier 2 opposition in the Pacific, and in 2022 they will face New Zealand in a 3-Test series.
Can this be serious? If the league of nations goes ahead, Ireland’s schedule in 2022 for example, would be five Tests: three in New Zealand, one of which, presumably, will count for points, and two Tests elsewhere in other SANZAAR countries or whoever else is recruited into the southern hemisphere grouping.
No northern side in the professional era has undergone such a schedule. And this, notably, will be at the end of the arduous northern season.
Confusion also attends the future of the traditional and very successful British and Irish Lions’ tours. They, surely, are unmanageable in the proposed league schedule. If they go, so does one of the great player and hosting experiences of the game.
And a final question. Where in the new league schedule are the opportunities for national selectors and coaches to introduce new players into national teams without laying themselves open to prejudicing points on the table? If league points are to be even more important than the current rankings system, then risk-averse selections and game plans will be the order of the day.
An attempt to counter such a prospect is being mounted by the Global Rapid Rugby initiative that is the brainchild of mining magnate Andrew Forrest. It claims to provide a new format for rugby – innovations include halves of 35 minutes; “power tries” worth nine points; penalties worth only two points; disincentives to kicking to touch, and yet a 40/22 advantage similar to rugby league, and ten rolling substitutions.
To be fair some of the full schedule of innovations would improve the continuity and pace of the traditional game but there are at least two causes for concern. The first is the inference that what is under way is an attempt to radically change the profile of rugby players.
In short, the question is whether rugby as a game for all shapes, sizes and speed of foot is being tinkered with in order to make it a spectacle rather than a sport which spectators understand and can engage with.
The second concerns the logistics of this project, due to start in 2019 with eight teams (Fiji, Hong Kong, Japan (two teams), Malaysia, Perth, Samoa and Singapore) featuring in a 56 game / 14 rounds tournament which will run at the same time as Super Rugby. To remain viable eight teams in such a tournament will require approximately 240 players of sufficient skill to attract sponsorship and a paying match day and television audience.
Given that the Australian Super Rugby teams have conceded that the national player depth is insufficient for five teams, where is GRR going to get its players? The obvious sources are aspiring and early career Australian, New Zealand, Pacifika, South African and northern hemisphere players leavened by a small number of “marquee players” from around the world.
To this, World Rugby – whose Vice-Chairman, Augustin Pichot, is also President and Director of Forrest’s company, Argentina Fortescue South America – has given its provisional approval. As the lesser Oracle, Rugby Australia has conformed to the ambiguities and contradictions of Delphi.
Originally, RA Deputy Chairman, Brett Robinson, viewed Pichot’s position as involving a conflict of interest and confronted him accordingly at a World Rugby Executive Committee meeting in March 2018. It appears not to have made any difference to the latter’s WR appointment.
Now, eight months later, RA has voiced no objections to Forrest’s GRR proceeding, and in the most oracular manner. Despite the obvious fact that GRR is a direct competitor in Australia for spectators, sponsorship and a broadcast revenue, Robinson’s has proffered the view that it will provide no “direct” competition with RA.
Fortunately for the Lesser Oracle, he was speaking to his petitioners within a tradition immemorial and not required, therefore, to define his terms or reconcile the externally obvious and real with the wishful.