With 2013 drawing to a close, Planet Rugby's chief paper-pusher reflects on the lessons learnt over the past twelve months.
Last December I had a proper whinge about how overworked we were in 2012. The good news - for you - is that we were even busier in 2013 as our offices around the world had another bumper year, producing around 10 000 previews, reports, opinion pieces, galleries and news articles. A word of thanks to staffers Adam, Ben, Dave and Jamie and all our contributors for their hard graft.
I'm happy to report that with site visits approaching the 20 million mark since January 1, reader and revenue numbers for both Planet Rugby and our parent company TEAMtalkmedia continue to rise.
"Revenue" has been the key word behind many of the year's biggest happenings, both for the media industry and the game as a whole, largely due to the continued decline in print media in favour of free online entertainment.
Editorial integrity v commercial imperatives
It's a funny old thing, the internet, and I find myself loving and loathing it in equal measure every day. Modern society's ever-increasing appetite for celebrity gossip and scandal leaves us with a careful balancing act between editorial integrity and commercial imperatives. Rugby stars are among the biggest celebrities in the world today and their off-field indiscretions and other pursuits provide the fodder celebrity junkies crave.
Unlike some of our competitors, we are not yet ready to start covering 'stories' about former rugby players on reality TV dance shows or boozing at low-level clubs, but in the digital age of money-for-clicks, reader numbers show that ignoring stories about certain individuals - you know who they are - is the commercial equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot.
Rugby's struggle to adapt to the challenges of professionalism
While we hovered between the gossip devil and bankruptcy deep blue sea, world rugby bosses have been juggling the hot potatoes of growth, fairness and profitability.
Almost two decades since the advent of paychecks for 'playing' (should it be 'working'?), rugby is still hamstrung by structures and attitudes carried over from the amateur era. In this column last year I said 2012 could have represented a "way station in the evolution of the game and its culture." In hindsight, that statement was premature because I can't help feeling that many of the biggest stories in 2013 were a reflection of rugby's struggle to adapt to the challenges of professionalism.
Of course the difference between rugby and benchmark pro sports like NFL or soccer is Test match rugby. Apart from being entrenched in rugby tradition and representing the pinnacle of player aspirations and fan interest, international fixtures are also the key revenue generators that fund the growth of the game.
The custodians of the sport, the national unions, are responsible for the game at both the highest and grass-roots levels, but 2013 has seen their role and various levels in between called into question. These national bodies, which where created to oversee the dealings of provinces and clubs during the amateur era still wield significant control over the businesses that these professional entities have become. IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset insists the "unions must remain masters of the game" but with the owners of the means of production demanding a greater control of the purse strings, the power struggles we're currently witnessing were inevitable.
For years Unions have traded on the good will of clubs to provide their 'assets' for the national cause but it's little wonder that a relative newcomer to the sport like the Emperor of Toulon Mourad Boudjellal complains when he must pay the shortfall to cover the salaries of the likes of Bryan Habana or Mathieu Bastareaud, even while they are wearing national jerseys and generating revenue (there, that word again) for their respective unions.
It's a complex situation. While many pundits point to New Zealand's example of central contracting as the solution, it's a very difficult system to implement on the larger scales necessary in places like France, where something similar is in the pipeline.
An almighty mess in Europe
Of course the almighty mess in Europe at the moment is a perfect example of the disconnect between the various levels of the game. (Before southern hemisphere fans start sniggering, they should ask themselves how many of South Africa's franchises were in favour of the Kings replacing the Lions in Super Rugby or how much commercial sense that move made.)
No, I'm not endorsing the way Premiership Rugby have gone about their revolution, but it would be extremely hard for any level-headed observer to deny the validity of the initial grievances laid down by the French and English clubs.
The fact that it took some very heavy-handed tactics to force the union administrators to concede to a competition revamp illustrates just how the politics of power and loyalties to old allies are at play here. That said, the English overplayed their hand by signing the infamous BT deal on the assumption that the rest would be obliged to follow. They are now so far down their new path it could well be too late to return to the fold. Everyone losses as a result.
In my book, both sides have missed a golden opportunity for the north to implement the changes needed to catch up with the southern hemisphere. What Europe needs is an equivalent to Super Rugby.
Warren Gatland lamented the vast chasm between the club game and Test rugby after the November loss to the Springboks. It's exactly that gap a season-long pan-European competition could fill. Axe the Pro12. Trim the Top 14 and the Premiership. Get Europe's best competing against each other on a weekly basis. Sadly, I don't see that happening any time soon.
In this uncomfortable climate where new economic imperatives trump the preservation of the richness of European competition (i.e. keeping Italian and Scottish rugby alive), it is refreshing to note that one of our sport's oldest and most cherished traditions - the B&I Lions tour - also happens to be an incredible money maker. Kudos to the team of 2013 for finally getting the positive series result needed to ensure public interest for at least another decade.
Let's also spare a thought for Robbie Deans, who was the victim of some Machiavellian behind-the-scenes shenanigans. There was no way he could have retained authority over his squad if he allowed Quade Cooper back into the fold. The loss of Australia's best fly-half, combined with David Pokock's absence ultimately proved to much for the Wallabies. Those responsible for setting Deans up for the fall by engineering QC's "toxic" remarks have a lot to answer for.
Amateur attitudes must go
The Three Amigos' drunken antics are another illustration of the kind of amateur-era attitudes that need to change amongst certain players, coaches and fans.
2013 was the year rugby was really awakened to the dangers of head knocks and concussion, a subject which we have given extensive coverage. It's another area were amateur bravado needs to be replaced by a professional outlook to caring for players' well being. The IRB is coming around - slowly - to the realisation that more needs to be done, especially in terms of educating coaches, officials and players themselves. The threat of an NFL-style lawsuit that would threaten revenues (there we go again) has obviously helped speed things along.
On the field, out-dated attitudes about the roles of backs and forwards will continue to hamper the progress of certain teams. Irrespective of how much you weigh, if you're a professional, having a single digit number on your back is not an excuse for dropping the ball. Here too the Kiwis are showing us the way - true 15-man rugby requires ball skills from everyone, even props. Exciting rugby = spectator interest = revenue.
Speaking of 'on the field'. How embarrassing was it to see rugby's showpiece stadiums in Cardiff and Paris provide sub-standard playing surfaces for the world's elite? Unpopular as they are in many circles, Saracens have taken the innovative step of investing in an artificial pitch to ensure the product is attractive to the paying audience. Here's hoping the style of rugby they play will follow a similar direction, but I'm not holding my breath.
I was shocked by the way SBW was widely lambasted by fans for being a 'money-grabber' when he decided not to return to the Chiefs. In any other profession, working for the highest bidder is par for the course. Why should rugby players be held to a different 'morality'?
When all is said and done, 2013 has been a memorable year for the game for a number of reasons: Wales shaking off a long losing streak to win the Six Nations as England wilted under the pressure in Cardiff; the Chiefs defending their Super Rugby title as resurgent Brumbies stumbled at the final hurdle; Toulon snatching the European title away from Clermont right at the death; the Wallabies capitulating in the final 20 minutes of a drama-filled Lions series; the All Blacks showing unrivalled 'big match temperament' to get out of jail on a few occasions to complete the perfect year. The list goes on and we'll cover all the highs and lows in our end-of-year features over the next fortnight.
Looking ahead, 2014 is set to be an extended dress rehearsal for the World Cup in England and I will be keeping a very close eye on the Springboks, who, if they continue their current trajectory, look set to be ready to challenge the All Blacks for the number spot. Likewise, I'll be intrigued to see if France can revive their fortunes, they certainly have the playing resources to do so.
Top of my wishlist is concrete efforts by rugby's rulers to establish a global calendar by 2016.
Whatever 2014 brings, the Planet Rugby team, as always, will be here to bring you closer to the action. I hope you join us for another year.
Yours in rugby,