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Opinion

Maybe turkeys do vote for Christmas

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3rd May, 2020
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Well, surprise surprise, Bill Beaumont has been re-elected as chair of World Rugby.

The election comes despite an almost invisible first term, and while running with a vice-chair who single-handedly overturned an independent review that recommended South Africa to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup and instead getting it awarded to France.

But such is the structure of international rugby that every single chair of World Rugby since rugby has become professional has come from the northern hemisphere, and given that tier-one powerhouse Italy is emboldened with three votes, such outcomes are unlikely to change in the future. I do wonder if Italy’s number of votes is calculated by the average number of tries they concede per match or is that still a bit light.

So the Six Nations vote in a block to protect their interests, but are they really voting in their own interests or is a serious case of tunnel vision in play with administrators voting for what suits their own tenure but not their country’s long-term rugby interests.

Let’s have a look at the structure of results, north versus south, since World Rugby aligned with the modern, professional game.

In terms of World Cup winners, there have been nine tournaments in total, with eight winners from the southern hemisphere one from the north.

Springboks

(Photo by Juan Jose Gasparini/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Following England’s win at the 2003 World Cup, the world rankings were launched with the then-world champions atop the rankings. That is until June of 2004 when New Zealand took over and proceeded to dominate the rankings, sharing the apex with South Africa. This was the norm for the next 15 years, until just before 2019 World Cup. By year’s end, however, South Africa and New Zealand again round out the quinella. Fifteen years of looking up would surely make someone north of the equator question what they were doing.

Thirdly, and this is the biggie, since 1995, the only one of the original Five Nations home unions to have a winning record against any of the three southern regions is England, which has a 58 per cent win rate against Australia, and even this outcome is only tipped over the line by the recent 7-0 record of the current Eddie Jones team.

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Every other northern side has a losing record against each and every one of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. Not one other side can even tip the scales at a win rate over 40 per cent. This is nothing short of pathetic.

All the money, massive player numbers and all the political influence you would want over the game, and still they produce long-term outcomes that would scream for restructure and change in any other industry. But still they plod along voting for the status quo, protecting their positions on their home and international boards, and showing up in their corporate boxes to watch their sides lose to their southern hemisphere opponents 75 per cent of the time.

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So why do they continue to vote for the same road? It is for two reasons: protection of the Six Nations tournament and money.

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Let’s remember these are the same nations that did not want to have anything to do with the formation of the Rugby World Cup, now the third largest sporting event in the world and some 900 million viewers in the bank from last year. Not a great deal of vision shown there, guys.

It can’t be to protect the quality of the rugby. The stats show that it produces international rugby losers over the long term and I am not sure I would ever want a tournament winner to come last in the table for tries scored, metres run, carries, line breaks, tackle breaks, turnovers won and lineout percentage as the 2019 Six Nations winner did.

Yes, there are many ways to play the game and there is no one set way to win, but in order for the game to stay viable we need to be able to sell it. This outcome is not a product people are going to pay TV rights for.

I sat down with real interest to watch this year’s Six Nations, and besides perhaps 40 minutes from France against England and one half from England against Ireland, it is turgid, and certainly not capable of expanding its TV-paying customer base.

And this brings us to the key element in any business: money.

Surely the home nations and World Rugby don’t want change because it may upset the revenue cart.

Bill Beaumont

Bill Beaumont (Photo: Reuters)

But that is simply not the case. When Royal Bank of Scotland walked away from their long-term sponsorship of the Six Nations, replacement sponsors we not exactly knocking down the door. The Six Nations were asking for £17 million (A$33 million) pounds per season, they managed to snag NatWest for a single year, and they paid £7 million ($14 million). That was down from the £9 million (A$18 million) a year RBS were forking over but still above the £6 million (A$12 million) a year Guinness are paying for the first year of their new contract.

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With CVC now sidelining their investment in the Six Nations while the world works through COVID-19, the financial situation is not so rosy. Can you imagine Bill Beaumont sitting down to negotiate the future rugby calendar with CVC when they finally add the Six Nations to their investments in the English Premiership and the PRO14. I can imagine he thinks private equity is a men’s club in London.

The English rugby premiership has fallen into the same trap as Rugby Australia but with a little more time to work it out. Their current rights holder BT Sport have let their rights period lapse without taking up the option and the only other major player in the market, Sky Sports, has a ruptured relationship with the RFU after the last round of negotiations – sound familar? Expectations for the new contract were already down before the virus hit live-sport revenues, so this is not going to end well.

Despite this worsening financial position, Ireland, Scotland and Italy decided it was best to vote against the $600 million that would have been injected into the global game with the proposed round-robin cup and global calendar because they do not have enough confidence in their own unions to accept a relegation trap door.

Maybe they are well aware of the horrible record they have versus the southern nations and don’t have the stomach for the fight, or perhaps it is the threat that Agustin Pichot would bring to their project player programs should he get in the chair. We can include Wales in that group too. Tell you what, guys: produce your own players like the rest of us.

So the financial situation is nowhere near as rosy as it has been in the past, France and England remain captive to the club owners for the development of talent, and given the scab that has recently been pulled off the most successful side in England in recent years, there is a model here that looks to be under very real threat.

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These guys need to remind us all again why is it you keep voting for the status quo.

I get the tournament history, and it’s great. I used to live in Europe and have attended many Six Nations games, the tribalism is terrific and the Parc des Princes will always remain one of my favourite grounds. But I was also a fan of Betamax, the Sony walkman and buttons that make a click when you press them. It’s time to move on.

Turkeys may not vote for Christmas, but a frog will happily sit in water of ever-increasing temperature until it dies. Maybe the northern unions actually fit this latter description better.