Planet Rugby

The editor's year-end review

20th December 2012 16:55

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old grey ed

Prophecies: Ed is in an ominous mood

They say time flies when you're having fun. What does it do when you've got your nose to the grindstone? 2012 has been hectic!

As the busiest year in the history of the game draws to a close there are a lot of players out there who, like us, desperately need a break.

This time last year I was chuffed to report that we had produced over 1000 match previews and over 200 live commentaries in 2011, but we far surpassed those numbers over the last twelve months.

Yet, I shouldn't complain. The sight of Jean de Villiers hobbling around hotel lobbies during the Rugby Championship reminded me of just how tough it can be at the top these days. When JdV was called straight back into Currie Cup action and then sent north to lead the Boks in Europe I couldn't help reflecting on how much the game has changed.

Back in 1995, a lot of prophecies were made about where our sport was headed as it embarked on a voyage into professionalism, some of which are starting to become reality. While many vestiges of the amateur era - both good and bad - remain, I believe 2012 will represent a way station in the evolution of the game and its culture.

Players are resources, precious assets that must be managed carefully. As workloads continue to increase in a rugby calendar that grows ever-more congested, the events of the last year and have show us that success in the future will depend as much on what goes on at negotiating tables as on training fields.

Contacts, the cornerstone of professionalism, need to be looked at in a whole new light. Rugby players take many years and a lot of money to develop, neither of which are reimbursable when a player signs a big deal elsewhere, as Cardiff Blues made very apparent in the bitter tone of their press release confirming Jamie Roberts' departure to France.

Love them or hate them, in many ways Toulon represent the direction modern rugby is taking, buying finished products (at premium prices) from around the world in a relentless march towards silverware. Essentially, they're outsourcing production. And they're not alone, as illustrated by the flow of 'cheap,' young players out of the Pacific Islands.

It's also no coincidence that Mourad Boudjellal prefers to buy players at the end of their international careers. The current calendar dictates that for every active Test player in your squad, you need another player - who you must pay all year - to fill the gap when your internationals are away with their national teams. It's a recipe for killing off the 'little guys.' The increasing frequency with which Tests clash with/interrupt leagues on both sides of the equator only compounds the flow of talent to handful of big spenders.

The Sonny Bill Williams saga is set to leave its mark too. The Chiefs will not be the same team without him next year. I'll happily admit to being a SBW fan - the man has revolutionised the game in a way not seen since Jonah Lomu became professional rugby's first superstar. For now, he may have returned to the 13-man code, where it's normal to hop from club to club, but I suspect we'll see him at the next World Cup.

The De Villiers example is remarkable, not only because he played top-class rugby for 10 straight months, but because he survived without a long-term breakdown. Many others can't say the same. Indeed, the list of absentees during the end-of-year international window makes for scary reading.

Beyond highlighting the need for many national unions to revisit how their assets - sorry, players - are managed, the Tests in November and December served to remind us of just how small margins are at international level. And how quickly things can change.

In the space of a few months Wales went from Grand Slam heroes to a seven-game losing streak that ultimately saw them plonked into the pool of death at the next World Cup. (I still fail to see the logic in a draw based on form three years prior to the event).

In similar fashion, Scotland's euphoric return from their triumphant southern-hemisphere tour was followed by a nightmare series on home soil. Scotland's dire straits and could very well be made worse by the uncertain future facing European club rugby.

After yet another stalemate at the last round of talks between all the stakeholders involved, I struggled to see how a resolution can found unless one side is willing to make major concessions, which neither faction seems willing to do.

The situation is nothing short of a crisis if you are Scottish or Italian and very worrying if you're Welsh. The real challenge is making the smaller teams from the PRO12 financially competitive. The sight of empty seats at Liberty Stadium for the recent game against Toulouse does not bode well for revenue streams.

Technology might be the saviour of northern hemisphere rugby in general. Proper artificial pitches are now a reality. Soon muddy surfaces will no longer be an excuse for not playing the high-paced game audiences demand.

On the subject of excitement, Super Rugby is in great health. Every year we complain about length of the season, but every January we're counting the days until the entertainment starts again. The expansion of the Tri-Nations into the Rugby Championship proved to be on of the highlights of the year. How long before we see further expansion on both levels? If Argentina are to become fully-fledged members of the southern-hemisphere power clique, then they must be given two Super Rugby franchises.

Here's my solution: Keep the Kings to appease the politicians, bring the Lions back, add a non-cap team or two from the Pacific Islands (based in New Zealand?), two from Argentina and split the whole bunch into four pools. The season will be shorter, the TV stations will still get a bucketload of games and we'll be rid of the current (ludicrous) format.

We'll be publishing our annual awards this weekend with the All Blacks once again topping a number of lists. Kudos to Steve Hansen and his team for avoiding the feared 'World-Cup hang-over' and showing everyone why they are ranked number one in the world, barring that slip-up at Twickenham, which took a lot of heat off Stuart Lancaster.

It's toss up between the England boss and Heyneke Meyer for the toughest job in the game. Leading the Springboks is a political minefield but dealing with English press's panache for sensationalism must be exhausting. Meyer has been in the firing line too and until the Boks start playing with a bit more imagination, he shouldn't expect any respite.

While the big teams will always continue to dominate the headlines, for me the real highlights in 2012 came courtesy of the smaller nations. Samoa are now a force to be reckoned with and their mini-tournament in South Africa next June could be a eye-opener for a lot of blinkered Bok fans.

Of course, the big story of 2013 is the Lions tour to Australia, where a series victory for the tourist is overdue.

As always, we'll be there to bring you closer to the action. I hope you join us for another year.

Yours in rugby,

Ed.

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