Change or die: rugby union's growing financial storm calls for strong action

Paul Rees
·5-min read

Money is not talking but hollering as the impact of the coronavirus continues to bite. The Rugby Football Union, the richest in the world, is making more than 20% of its staff redundant as it grapples with a potential loss of £107m, Super Rugby is set to ditch Argentina and South Africa, four of whose franchises look bound for the Pro14, and the French clubs have agreed to France playing five Tests this autumn instead of three.

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“You better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone,” sang Bob Dylan in The Times They Are a-Changin’. “For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled. The battle outside ragin’ will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls.”

The waters are choppy and the storm may not yet be at its height. It is nearly four months since rugby was last played in Europe and the plans of the Premiership and the Pro14 to resume next month hinge on the lockdown restrictions continuing to be eased. A second spike would end hopes of finishing the various campaigns.

The dates for next season’s professional leagues have been set. The Top 14 will start in September, the Pro14 a month later and the Premiership will kick off at the end of November. What has yet to be fixed are the international matches in the autumn, with the current tour schedule almost certain to be abandoned because of global travel restrictions.

World Rugby’s council is due to meet on 15 July to discuss the schedule, but the meeting is likely to be put back by at least a week while talks are held with unions, clubs and players’ associations.

The postponement of the tours that were meant to take place in the southern hemisphere means there are six weekends to be filled, and the plan is to start concluding the Six Nations on 24 October and play on until the beginning of December.

World Rugby’s role is ensuring that regulation nine, which governs the release of players for international matches, applies to the extended window. The agreement of the French clubs solves one problem but the start of the Premiership season will coincide with the final two Test weekends and the following week is due to see the start of the two European club competitions.

That the world’s richest union is having to make major cutbacks should be focusing minds. It will have an impact on all levels of the game in England, starting with the national squad and then the Premiership, which will suffer a drop in the sum it receives from the elite player agreement at a time when its clubs are having to make cuts.

The bulk of the game’s income is generated by the international game, which is why the primacy of Test rugby should be established. One faultline that has been exposed in the last few months is the way the game is governed: World Rugby has almost been acting as a mediator between unions, clubs and players, when it should have the authority to lead.

Related: RFU proposes to cut 139 jobs to combat projected losses of £107m

Last month’s virtual, inaugural meeting of the professional game forum, which took in unions, clubs and players, may have been heated at times but it allowed arguments to be put directly. In the past, World Rugby has needed permission from unions to speak to club officials, and it has tended to be granted only on welfare issues. That nonsense should end, and while a second meeting of the forum has not been arranged, it will take place.

It is where the global calendar will be discussed. World Rugby’s decision is due this month, and no date has been set on when that will be made because it wants to give itself as much time as possible before committing itself, because controlling the pandemic is like uncracking an egg.

It will relate to this autumn’s fixtures that will be played in Europe and in the south, which has taken a big hit financially through the cancellation of this month’s tours, where the Rugby Championship is set to be played in one country, with players flying in and going into quarantine for two weeks.

Hope of applying the global calendar next season has not been abandoned, but time is no ally. South Africa need to know when the Lions will be coming next year, in July or in September, but there could be an issue even if the calendar does not change. With health experts warning that the virus will still be around in a year’s time, and probably until a vaccine is found, the Lions would face having to go into quarantine for two weeks.

They are due to leave the weekend of the Premiership final and, while the Pro14’s climax will be held earlier, staggering departures would further dilute the unique nature of the Lions, who will be going on the shortest tour in their history. Given the financial importance, both to the host country and the four home unions, the pressure exerted on the Lions in recent years shows how rugby’s dog needs to be able to wag its tail.

Elitism is where the money will flow. Super Rugby is set to be relaunched without South Africa and Argentina: the former has the Pro14 as a refuge, but where do the Jaguares go? The major leagues will link up, through Europe and Super Rugby, and a global calendar would allow tournaments to be played without overlaps. There is a way out.

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