Loose Pass: Brexit, fair play and rugby politics

Date published: January 9 2019

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with Brexit, long finishes and the re-emergence of an ugly political horizon…

Pawns to the Gods…

Reports abounded this week of the potential for upheaval within the European Champions Cup as a result of the current television deal expiring in three years’ time.

A neat quirk of fate means that the official Brexit date is exactly the weekend when a number of cross-channel quarter-finals are due to take place; one of the great rugby travel weekends of the calendar.

Fans of Munster and Leinster will be alright as long as they are playing French opposition, but Ulster’s fans might struggle to travel anywhere. English, Welsh and Scottish teams all face uncertain planning scenarios, while the French teams, who might need to travel to Saracens, also have a problem. A no-deal Brexit would lead to all these cross-channel/sea fans being treated like someone from Australia or the USA – and having to pay €7 for the privilege.

Players, too, are in the mire. Those from South Africa, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga are all classed as European because of the Kolpak agreement currently, but that’ll be gone on March 29 too. Will they be allowed to work?

Those are extreme examples – it’s unlikely that no-deal will simply create a metaphorical steel wall between the UK and Europe. But it’s a development worth watching, as the uncertainty in rugby circles is growing.

Fair play to you

It’s quite possible that the finale of the WorcesterBath match on Saturday marked the first time in the Premiership’s history that a team (including bench) has finished a match with more players off the pitch than on it.

Yet nobody could sling an arrow at anybody clad in a Bath jersey. Each time a prop was yellow-carded, on came another. Not once did we see the urgent chats, gestures, furtive expressions or clipboard consults that soiled the finale of the FranceWales game a couple of years ago. On they trotted, and tried manfully to hold the scrum that would bring the game to its end. Eventually they did and Worcester duly converted their three-man set-piece overlap.

A bizarre finish, perhaps a controversial one, but there was not a bad word to say about the officials either – and there was little fault to find with any of the four cards he handed out during the final 35 minutes, which began in the 64th minute. Rugby’s principles showing their better colours this day.

Money – the root of it all

It’s not long ago that Loose Pass foresaw another outbreak of politics within English rugby, and now we’re confident enough to predict it before the end of this season – not least if Brexit drowns out Europe as a working concept.

Cash, of course, is the catalyst and continuing the ‘words beginning with c’ theme, we feel it only fair to quote Bernie Ecclestone, who observed in the Mail on Sunday that, “If you got hold of the guys and tarted them up, it (rugby) would be bigger than American Football.”

Leaving aside the amusing picture that gives of 30 well-made up lads trotting onto the pitch ahead of a Saturday smash-around, this is a worrying development.

CVC – who made Ecclestone’s Formula One dream of making ludicrous amounts of money come true – now has its hooks into the Premiership. And barely days later, there’s talk of a new movement to end relegation this season already, with the clubs (surprise, surprise) threatening to breakaway once more and do their own thing.

Although unlikely, as it would mean no release for England games unless a new agreement between clubs and country could be reached, the clubs are in a good position. The coffers are full, right at a time when the RFU is leaderless and broke. And although a good job is currently done, there is clearly opportunity for the marketing and promotion of the club game to be improved – few clubs would not jump at someone doing just that.

The noises are not tempestuous yet – no discussions between the two sides have been had. But with confident clubs loaded with cash, a union looking badly in need of a revamp from top to bottom and a landscape where opportunity is rife, don’t expect the clubs to stay quiet for too long. Especially as the relegation season looms.

Loose Pass compiled by Lawrence Nolan