Rugby's new face sits ill at ease

Date published: May 21 2014

With domestic changes looming, rugby's timorous governing bodies and unions must step up to safeguard the future of the game.

With domestic changes looming, rugby's timorous governing bodies and unions must step up to safeguard the future of the game.

I have sat quietly nursing a growing sense of apprehension while recent developments across European rugby have been reported, debated and in some cases trumpeted by much wiser and more experienced rugby men and women than I.

On Saturday, the last-ever Heineken Cup Final will take place under the closed roof of the magnificent Millenium Stadium; one last hurrah for club rugby's greatest competition. Then it will be no more, embarking off into the sunset and enduring only through the wonderful memories it will leave us with.

Perhaps it is fitting that this ultimate showpiece will be contested by Toulon and Saracens, two clubs who are perfect poster boys for rugby's new, commercialised façade.

Will its replacement, the Rugby Champions Cup, inject fresh impetus, new dynamism, a greater sense of significance and spectacle to the pan-European game? Its backers will answer vehemently in the affirmative, but while I am sympathetic to the initial Anglo-French gripes that surfaced all those months ago, I fear the nature and scale of the change does not augur well for our sport.

The new tournament is, in theory, union-administered and union-governed. That is true in name only. In reality, it is the clubs and their owners who now have a firm grip on European rugby. The unions have allowed an assortment of businessmen to pry from their grasp the jewel in the crown of the Northern Hemisphere, and I remain incredulous at the number of people who suggest this is a good thing.

The clubs have indeed “won the battle for Europe”, and the unions have indeed ceded control. It is, in my view, a very dangerous path down which to tread.

I am at pains to stress this is not an attack, nor a bitter character-assassination of the likes of Mark McCafferty, Bruce Craig and Nigel Wray; far from it. They're entitled to seek methods of bettering their earnings, and when it comes to professional rugby in England, the word “earnings” can more often than not be substituted by “losses”.

But frankly, this scenario is far larger than them; it bears wide-ranging implications for global rugby.

Most worryingly, it sets a precedent within the game we should be wary of: if you're a disgruntled club owner, rightly or wrongly, and you kick up enough fuss, you are sure to get your way.

Our much-maligned unions have a great many faults – they're bureaucratic, they tend to move with the pace of a geriatric sloth and the conviction of a corpse. ERC's handling of the Euro-scuffle left a lot to be desired.

But for the good of the game, they must retain their role as custodians of rugby. And if they are to do so, it is imperative that, in conjunction with the IRB, they stand up and demonstrate some discernible backbone when troubles surface and rifts appear.

In the European debate, it took Pierre Camou, a man, regardless of his motives, who bore the gumption and drive to swim free from the stagnant ocean of union lethargy to do battle with the LNR and the French club bosses.

Meanwhile, rugby's governing body appear perennially impotent and afraid to exert their considerable clout, reluctant to rule and enforce where necessary.

Take, for instance, the Florian Fritz concussion saga, which we have featured extensively on these pages. Ask the IRB what action they plan to take over the most outrageous disregard for player welfare many of us will ever have witnessed, and they will tell you how deeply concerned they are, how they have asked the FFR to investigate, but how despite their apparent omnipotence they have no jurisdiction over such domestic leagues as the Top 14.

The FFR have in turn requested the LNR launch their own enquiry (which I understand kicked-off on Monday); lots of buck-passing, lots of condemnation, lots of tutting and shaking of heads, but precious little action.

Despite the presence of progressive thinkers like Brett Gosper and real rugby men like John Jeffrey and Bill Beaumont near the summit of the IRB, this display is indicative of the backwards officialdom that saw the group meekly sit by as Europe's club owners ushered in a new era of commerce.

We must be mindful that the good old amateur days are long gone; that television cash is king and that the game is an entirely different beast to that which we look upon fondly through grainy screen footage and commemorative DVDs.

But I believe I am among many eyeing the direction in which rugby is heading with a hefty degree of caution; I can certainly envisage a time in the not-too-distant future where the club game becomes such a sprawling monster that it seriously impedes Test level and disputes over player release and Regulation 9 become obsolete.

England will be without many top players for their first international on New Zealand soil next month, and despite the clamour, the unavailability of Owen Farrell, the Vunipola brothers and Tom Wood is a relatively minor issue.

But were such an expanding club schedule to impact upon a World Cup, perhaps the 2019 Japan-based tournament, it would make for an altogether different scenario.

The events that unfolded across Europe set the tone for rugby's immediate future, and I believe our governing bodies must start doing what they say on the tin. For the good of the game, it is time for them to stand up and be counted.

By Jamie Lyall