Loose Pass: Solving English rugby’s issues, sleepy Eddie Jones and helpful Barbarians

Lawrence Nolan

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the Premiership reduction, Eddie Jones’ sleepless night and what to do with rest weeks…

From ruins, the opportunity

For the RFU boss to talk about using the ‘nuclear’ option wasn’t perhaps the most appropriate soundbite, given the current state of the world, but content-wise, the RFU CEO made a lot of sense this week.

“(The current club/country system) is not ideal for club or country and we’re all fed up with it,” said Mr. Sweeney. The RFU is moving into the mess and floating, once again, the idea of central contracts for its international players to put an end to the ridiculous piecemeal compromise that has sat uneasily for years and diluted the meaning from fixtures, as well as flogging players far, far beyond what they ought to be asked to shoulder.

The RFU is also backing up the chat among some coaches that a 10-team top tier could be the way forward to put an end to the interminable overstretch that has blighted English rugby since money first came into the equation.

The talk of 10 teams in next season’s Premiership has immediately raised the question of which other side is to lose its top-flight status. Relegation for one at the end of the season would be a vaguely sporting decision, yet the number of times Loose Pass’ WhatsApp has pinged this week asking if he knew which of the other teams is rumoured to be circling the plughole is indicative of the strength of the rumours doing the rounds.

There’s no smoke without fire, goes the saying. But the problem now is that everything is burning. It’s more a case of which structure is going to collapse under the weight of the flames next.

There are hundreds of people from Wasps and Worcester who have been forced into the job market over the past fortnight, because of nothing other than mismanagement by those supposed to be looking after their interests. That’s not just the owners who are directly responsible either, that’s the administrators who turned blind eyes to KPIs flashing flame-red and allowed sporting clubs to run roughshod over some basic business rules.

The protests from some that we are in a unique economic era can only mitigate so far. A more robust business model, better governance of ownership and any form of budgetary review would have seen clubs survive harder times then these.

Will English rugby learn this time? It feels like an existential question. The ideas on the table – sorry, the nuclear table – are of fewer club games, a dovetailing club and international season, itemised and pre-prepared business plans with deliverables for a central governing body and full checks and balances of ownership are all ones that observers and most insiders alike have been clamouring for yonks.

The RFU and Premiership Rugby even look like they might work together for the good of the game, its clubs and players. Brilliant. We’ve all only wanted it for 20 years and it only took the sudden, high-profile and mid-season demise of two of England’s more traditional clubs to actually get it going.

Not too long ago, Premiership Rugby CEO Simon Massie-Taylor once again spoke of his desire to make the Premiership more attractive to investors. Right now it is looking more like one of those overvalued unicorns haemorrhaging investors’ money; fun to be involved in in times of prosperity, the first ones downsizing furiously when times get tougher and investors don’t need to lose cash to balance their tax bills. Would you touch English rugby in the state it is in?

The only shining light in all of this is that the actual rugby, on the pitch, is really, really good at the moment. If you only care about the action, and if you can filter out the endless injury/water/TMO interruptions, you’re having a great time. The administration may be rubbish, but the product is excellent, and worth a look. What the game needs now is an activist investor to come in and ensure that the game is actually run as properly off the pitch as the lines being run by the players on it are. If it doesn’t happen now, it could all come crashing down.

Sleepless in Twickenham

Harlequins’ defeat to Leicester on Sunday was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a dull game. So it was a little amusing to see Eddie Jones looking for all the world as though he was dozing off after a liquid lunch in the stands.

Jones puts in some serious miles to observe his players and you can forgive him the tiredness, but there’s also the problem that, once again, he is a coach down at a moment when you would normally expect a coaching staff to be in full planning mode ahead of a major tournament.

Losing sleep over it? Who knows, but he was at the right place on Sunday: Leicester’s defence under Kevin Sinfield was close to flawless for 78 minutes. Another club v country conflict looming?

There’s always the Baa-Baas

One of the less-mentioned problems created by the demise of Worcester and Wasps is that several clubs now have holes – sorry, more holes – in their revenue plans for the season. The loss of home games against Wasps in particular may be painful for gate receipts, many clubs’ principal sources of income.

Northampton have taken the solution of playing a Barbarians team on their week off; is there any clearer indicator that rugby has gone a funny way when the Barbarians are hastily inserted into the calendar as a revenue gap filler?

Leicester, who just look to be getting their mojo back, now have nearly a month before their next game away at Bath and six weeks before the next game at Welford Road. Even for a team which owns its own impressive stadium and commands a healthy local following, that will be painful. Maybe the Baa-baas will end up doing an East Midlands double-header. By the end of November, England will have had more home games this season than the Tigers. That is somehow not the sign of a rugby scene in good health. At all.

READ MORE: Who’s hot and who’s not: Premiership excites on the field but in turmoil off it and huge win for Fijian rugby