Here at HoR2 we’re always happy to welcome new blogs to the Irish ruggersphere, here’s post from RugbyWaffle…
Round 3 of this year’s Heineken Cup has been a very positive one for the Irish provinces. 4 wins from 4 including an historic victory for Connacht against Toulouse in France has left Irish rugby fans on a high and focusing on the second leg of the back to back games. Can we make it 4 from 4 again and put all provinces into the frame for the quarter finals? Who couldn’t be optimistic at how well we’re doing now?
Unfortunately this has all occurred against the backdrop of the turmoil in European rugby. At the moment it looks like there will not be any English representation next year and even the French involvement is not guaranteed as we wait to hear what their clubs decide in February. Even if the French choose to continue playing in Europe though it seems we have just kicked the governance can down the road a bit. The French insist that the issue be addressed next year. So where does that leave us going forward both as rugby fans and as Irish rugby fans?
A lot has been made of the English clubs and their role in this current dispute. It is true that the PRL, and some of the club owners in particular (yes Nigel Wray I’m looking at you), have done little to endear themselves to anyone outside of the English game. Their BT deal, their constant grandstanding in the press and their habit of making game changing announcements on the eve of ERC meetings have made them the target of a lot of frustration and anger from certain quarters, none more-so than here in Ireland. And I’ve been as guilty as any of pointing the finger and claiming this is really all about control and money.
However having given the situation more thought I’m beginning to think the problem is not really with the English clubs at all. Nor is it with the Pro12 clubs who, while having had an easy ride in some sense, could well be the ones to suffer most should things continue as they are. The problem, in my eyes anyway, is with the French clubs. And if anything the concessions granted to them by both the ERC and the FFR could have made things worse for all involved.
Last year’s Heineken Cup was won by a French side that had a grand total of 3 French players starting that day. Toulon are the most obvious example of a side with money buying their way to the top. However this is becoming a far more prominent issue in the Top14 with the likes of Clermont and Racing every bit as ready to splash out on players in ways that most clubs can’t compete with. Seeing a once proud club like Biarritz on the brink of relegation and utterly incapable of competing in their domestic league or at a European level should serve as a warning as to what can happen to clubs that cannot keep pace with the big money sides.
The rate at which some of the French clubs are pulling away from the rest of Europe is frightening. And with this in mind who can really blame the English clubs for being desperate to start making up the ground already lost? They don’t want to get left behind any more than we do. And from their perspective they have the potential market and power base to improve their lot. They may have gone about it in a far more confrontational and aggressive manner than was required, but to keep up with the French they need to get started now. The problem with that is that this just adds fuel to the fire and will mean the rest of us (the Pro12 nations) will get left behind as we have neither the market nor the power to compete at that level. The race to the top can only have two contenders.
The Welsh may have a number of issues within their own set-up but nobody can deny that their regions have been decimated by the lure of the big bucks in France. The moves of George North and Kahn Fotuali’I to Northampton could, and probably does, signal the start of the English following a similar route. The rumours of Priestland heading to Wasps next season as well as the confirmed signing of Tom Court by London Irish looks to further confirm these fears. With Jonathan Sexton already plying his trade with Racing Metro there are now further rumours of Heaslip and O’Brien moving to France also. With doubt over the future of the Heineken Cup and the Pro12 suffering due to so many departures there may be little to keep players from leaving. Should things continue to go this way the game in the Pro12 countries could be irrevocably damaged. And is this what anyone really wants long term?
So what do we do?
The way I see it the only way that European rugby can be saved is by keeping governance in the hands of the Unions and ensuring that something is done to address the huge imbalance financially between the big French sides and the rest of Europe. The English clubs are looking after themselves, as is their remit, but this leads to a short term view not too dissimilar from that which we saw from certain industries in the lead up to the global recession. By allowing the clubs to control the game we will end up in a race to the top that none of the smaller countries could ever hope to compete with. This will ensure that the Welsh situation where their top players are all leaving to play abroad will happen to the remaining Pro12 countries. This may not adversely affect Nigel Wray and the Saracens performance (both rugby and financial) but it does undermine and seriously take away from the game as a whole. And I don’t believe any rugby fan really wants that.
Welcome to the rugbywaffle blog. Here you will find long-winded opinion pieces of a Leinster and Irish rugby fan who thoroughly enjoys a good auld chat about anything and everything rugby related.