Loose Pass

Date published: May 2 2017

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the growing pains of professionalism…

It’s fascinating to look around what is happening in different countries at times. Clearly each country has its own unique set of problems and challenges, but the similarities and parallels are, to Loose Pass’ observing eye, often overlooked.

An example: this week Exeter coach Rob Baxter distanced himself from the advocates of player welfare – those who have been crying foul since it was announced that Premier Rugby might extend the Premiership season further – by saying that until rugby could be profitable for all, welfare would always play second fiddle to economics.

“The truth is that most Premiership rugby clubs are haemorrhaging money. Player welfare is important but you’ve got to look at the bigger picture,” he said.

“It’s very easy to say we shouldn’t play more than 25 games a season and we need a minimum eight-week off season to get players fit and strong. That’s great, but what are we getting them fit and strong for if Premiership clubs start going bust? Some of the comments made by players about player welfare need to be more thought through.

“Rugby clubs are businesses and you need to try and find a way to make a profit. At the moment we’re not doing that. What seems to be attracting TV and people through the gate is games of rugby.“

In Australia of course, the problem of haemorrhaging money is also weighing on all administrators. Waratahs CEO Andrew Hore tabled a list of concerns recently, at the top of which sat rampant player wage inflation. Money is being leaked at alarming rates in Australia as well.

Close behind the inflation problem is what Hore called a ‘lack of collaboration’ between the ARU and the stakeholders lower down the game’s hierarchy.

“We don’t have a great deal of collaboration,” he said.

“That’s the big difference between here and New Zealand. There’s almost a feeling with that group [rugby administrators] of being intimidated by consulting down. It’s as if they’re embarrassed if they don’t have the answer to bring to the table. I say give the problems to the people to bring back some solutions.”

But the answer in Australia cannot be to play more, being as the game is neither attracting TV nor bringing people through the gate. Instead, it’s been mooted that Australia’s second tier, the NRC, might be joined together with New Zealand’s, the Mitre 10, in an attempt at helping Australia’s underlying player base improve their understanding of international-level competition.

New Zealand’s problem was once that of haemorrhaging money. More recently it has been one of haemorrhaging players. Even more recently both those things seem to have stopped.

The New Zealand union’s annual report was glowing with pride recently, boasting: “The success of our national and Super Rugby teams is entirely reliant on the success of community rugby. This investment in community rugby is growing the pool of future All Blacks.”

And that is probably the point of this column this week. Talk to Kiwis about their senior club game and they’ll be quite quick to point out that the protagonists rarely, if ever, get paid by their clubs. Administrators do, organisers might do, but players are relied upon and trusted to be disciplined and honest. By and large they are.

They’re playing in more and more numbers and the rugby gets better and better all the way up. When infrastructure investment is well-made, inflation and instability are problems that seem to go away because it’s the investment in the infrastructure that makes the club a fun place to be. Who is desperate for more money when they are having fun?

So return to England. London Irish took Doncaster to the cleaners on Sunday, virtually guaranteeing their place in the Championship final against Yorkshire Carnegie (that’s Leeds in real English) and making them hot favourites for a straight return to the top tier.

But it cannot have been lost on Doncaster’s players that they had significantly less to play for in the light of the joint statement issued by their President Tony de Mulder and CEO David Ryall, who said:

“We feel promotion is unaffordable and out of our reach in the current structure and financial arrangement for professional club rugby in England.

“Our preference is to continue to play… rugby in the Championship rather than find ourselves bereft of the time and resources needed to construct a squad fit for Premiership competition where history has shown that the promoted side rarely prospers or survives.

“English professional rugby union is currently in a state of flux and there is much to be debated about the future of both the Championship and the Premiership.

“If and when the future of professional rugby in England becomes clear, then the ambition of Doncaster Rugby Club remains as fervent as ever but we will not cripple ourselves chasing something that is not feasible at this time.”

To some, that smacks of a lack of ambition. After all, Exeter went and did it, even if London Welsh didn’t.

But here’s the thing, Exeter also invested in their infrastructure for a long, long time before they went up. They balance their books and ensure that investment in the club or in playing staff is value-adding in the right places. It’s a club that works from the bottom up – and as Baxter noted, it’s one of the exceptions.

You rarely see the Chiefs and their fans look like they are not having fun – something in sharp contrast to some other clubs whose identity has been eroded by the problems of wage inflation and the insecurity caused by economic pressures. It’s in sharp contrast to the Aussies too – when was the last time Australian rugby felt like fun from the sidelines.

Professionalism has changed the game forever. It’s become a business. But the basic business values of financing, investment and the understanding of value in the return are not always adhered to correctly.

Until they are, you are going to find intolerable economic and administrative pressures, such as spiraling wage inflation and non-collaboration, building in pockets everywhere.

It’s time for many a club to have a rethink and look at their infrastructures rather than their products – the one is the machine to better the other.

Loose Pass is compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens