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The Wrap: If rugby could turn back time…

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25th October, 2020
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Truth told, I’ve never been a fan of Cher; she of legs that seemed to go on for longer than a French club season, barely concealed by wisps of black fishnet.

While others ogled, I looked away, too scared of catching a glimpse of something that might scar me for life.

To my ear, she’s no musician either, although with over 100 million records sold, and status as the only artist in history to have a number one record on the Billboard charts in each of six consecutive decades, it would seem I’m in the minority.

One of her biggest hits came in 1989. ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’, penned by celebrated songwriter Diane Warren. Written as a lover’s lament, its theme has since been adopted universally, and is now even applied whenever rugby writers with a week off in between Bledisloe Cup matches, feel like bewailing what could have been.

Rugby in 2020 is a mess. Depending on where one resides, club and junior competitions have been cancelled or severely compromised. It will come back of course, COVID willing, because the love of rugby, for its pure sport, for its easy acceptance of kids of all shapes and sizes, and for its kinship, remains as strong as it ever has been in its near two hundred-year history.

But the hurt is real.

Meanwhile, the professional game has been exposed for its fragile alliances and over-dependence on the largesse of broadcasters, themselves caught up in an arms race that has just crashed head first into a massive COVID/digital reality check.

If you can excuse an agnostic referencing the bible, rugby’s situation today is as perfect a reading of the love of money being the root of all evil, as one could get. Clubs breaching salary caps with impunity, chancer managers churning players into deals of dubious benefit to their charges, second-tier nations denied exposure and opportunity, are but some of the worst excesses.

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There is a more generous view that the motivator is more often survival instinct than greed, nevertheless rugby’s financial imbalances remain the greatest long-term inhibitor to the health of the sport.

The age-old lesson here is that it is not money itself that is the problem. Rugby was always turning professional in 1995 regardless – Rupert Murdoch’s ‘Super 10’ competition was up and running, ‘boot money’ was rife, there was so much cash sloshing around the game there was no choice but to ‘go legit’.

But if only we could turn back time, knowing what we know now, and chart a different course for the game.

There is a reason why building contractors and architects direct what, to the casual, untrained observer, seems like an inordinate amount of time and energy, to establishing solid foundations. Anything expected to survive and thrive for a long period of time needs a solid, secure base from which to prosper.

Despite advance warning, rugby stumbled into professionalism hopelessly ill-prepared, with little understanding of the future implications of allowing a professional game to develop on defective foundations.

The notion that professionalism represented nothing more than players and administrators doing exactly what they were doing as amateurs, but being paid for it was, at best, quaint; more accurately, negligent.

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Michael Hooper of the Wallabies waits for a TMO decision

Michael Hooper. No fishnets. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

In our ‘revisited 1995’, rugby’s national administrators would understand that in order to thrive, a truly global sport must manage itself on a global footing.

That each nation’s self-interest would be better served by acting in unity to maintain collective control of the game, commercial and rugby-wise, rather than by each country running off to do their own thing. Or, in the case of England and France, not doing much at all.

Huw Richards, in his excellent 2006 book, A Game for Hooligans: The History of Rugby Union, recounts how England’s RFU determined that it didn’t want anything to with professionalism, allowing, by default, the clubs to assume control of the players.

Richards himself would no doubt today be amused by his own reading of such a gross failing, having described it as “an omission with more than a decade’s worth of consequences.” A decade?

Here we are, 25 years on, with an understated RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney, in May this year, ruefully confirming the “fault lines that exist in the game, going back to 1995”, in the midst of a game in disarray, contemplating tens of millions of pounds of revenue lost, and, with a nod to his forebears, one hand tied behind his back with respect to how he might go about recovering the situation.

In a similar vein, frustrated fans today look towards World Rugby and wonder why the game’s supposed overarching body can’t simply wave a golden wand, and send everyone back to their rooms while they go about cleaning the whole mess up.

As it happens, the parallel to Australia’s situation under COVID is remarkably similar, and equally exasperating. For World Rugby, substitute the federal government, largely impotent, at the mercy of state leaders with eyes only for their own political futures, never mind the potential for a better overall outcome.

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If we have learned one thing in 25 years of professional rugby, and one under COVID, it is that provincialism blended with populism is an all-powerful force.

Rugby World Cups pale into insignificance for French rugby clubs who flourish in towns and cities that identify with ‘their team’, just as many Western Australians pine for the day their state shears off continental Australia, to form a new, independent nation in the Indian Ocean.

Ned Hanigan of the Wallabies makes a break

How important is the international game to some of the world’s biggest clubs? (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Rugby’s approach has been one of acceptance and appeasement. Let the cards fall where they may. Tip-toe around conflicting objectives. It is a non-solution that has satisfied few.

So, back to our hypothetical, second-chance, 1995 administrators. Instead of the “57 old-farts” that England captain Will Carling described the RFU as comprising, there would have been astute, forward-thinkers who identified that the key factor – above all else, and certainly above hauling Carling over the coals and stripping him of the captaincy – was to contract the players, then work collegially with the clubs to construct a suitable competition framework.

Here was the opportunity to strike a balance for the benefit of each stakeholder. The national unions would ensure the primacy of international rugby, club rugby would have identifiable and sustainable levels of professional and amateur competition, and players would be afforded sensible seasons that tangibly took account of their welfare – not just offered weasel words.

Blessed with a similar structure in each country, those same forward-thinking administrators would have come together, identified the need to modernise the governance structure of World Rugby, and underpinned rugby’s global growth and financial security in one fell swoop.

Think a global calendar that appropriately balanced the desire for annual elite international rugby all around the world, four-yearly World Cups, continuation of traditional powerhouses like the Five (Six) Nations championship and the Lions, and genuine pathways for developing nations to test their strength, improve their competitiveness and join the top table – all without other nations selfishly blocking them in order to protect their own seats.

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Rory Arnold of the Wallabies looks on

Rory Arnold fractured his forearm while playing in France. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Think professional club or franchise competitions – appropriately suiting the needs and character of each region – that simultaneously provided a pathway for aspiring players and connected to domestic audiences in a way that complemented their existing connections to grass roots rugby, instead of disenfranchising them.

Think the opposite of what Wales did, trashing the legacy of famous, historic rugby clubs by forcing illogically formed regional teams upon an unwilling rugby constituency – people who were the heartbeat of the Welsh game.

Think the benefits of a cohesive, integrated schedule, where the value of one competition would not be diminished by another competition stealing its assets. Where players would still enjoy cultural and rugby experiences in new parts of the world, but in a manner whereby player movement would be in equal measures north, south, east and west, not just today’s south to north tug-of-war.

Think realisation of rugby’s true commercial potential where, instead of a gaggle of private equity investors clamouring to do one-off deals with individual nations and competitions, in the process intensifying the level of competition between them and creating winners and losers, the financial return to the whole game would be maximised via the attractiveness of a consolidated, higher-value proposition.

Think of the capacity for financial and administrative resources to be directed into key emerging markets such North and South America, the Pacific Islands, Eastern Europe – not just for ‘feel good’ photo opportunities at one-off coaching clinics, but to prevent variously undernourished, corrupt, misguided and incompetent administrations from cruelling rugby’s advancement.

Think of Rugby Australia, New Zealand Rugby and other national bodies able to direct money and people into ensuring the health of the sport from the bottom up, instead of the constant tin-rattling and diversion of funds towards retention of a small cohort of elite players.

Rob Clarke

Rob Clarke of Rugby Australia. (Hugh Peterswald/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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Then again, is it fanciful to suggest that, even with the benefit of hindsight, because of the frailties of human nature, a different set of circumstances would apply?

Even if rugby was able to start again from 1995 with a clean slate, would the cronyism, self-interest and rapacity evident in other sports seep inevitably into rugby? At least into the places where it didn’t exist already?

Another of Cher’s best-known songs is the 1971 hit, ‘Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves’. Rugby has its share of all of three.

For as long as COVID continues to materially impact our rugby and non-rugby lives, there remains an opportunity for the game’s leaders to come together, not for ‘more of the same’ talkfests, but to actually plot a course that would see player loads reduced from eleven months to nine and a half, that would see developing nations allowed to prosper as other than feeder farms, and to ensure that the game functions on a basis other than who has the most money, wins.

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Perhaps the clock doesn’t need to be rewound to 1995, after all. Understanding the mess that 2020 has become, it should be enough to buy some time and start this year all over again. Sweeney said all of the right things back in April, pointing towards Australia when he described the willingness of all nations to help each other out in times of financial need.

That doesn’t appear to have been the path taken by SANZAAR partners Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina in their clumsy attempts to put together an international series for this year and a franchise competition for next year.

It is high time for rugby’s administrators to move past posturing and carefully worded statements, to implement outcomes that will help themselves and the game.