Former copper Paul Ackford is presented as a journalist whose articles are straight to the point with a hard line in incisive questioning. If we allow his reputation to precede him, Ackford’s sub-editors have some explaining to do.
The article’s headline makes it appear that Ackford is going to do an investigatory piece into what has gone wrong with English rugby in Europe. He’s going to ask hard questions. They’ll be incisive. Ackford will be a little bit nice, or a little bit nasty. Then you read the article and find out that what is wrong with English rugby is other people; specifically, foreign types. Whether it’s the greasy Italians, the ghastly Welsh, the dour Jocks or the feckless Paddies, it’s certainly not noble Albion.
Ackford interviews Mark McCafferty, the Chief Executive of Premiership Rugby, who thinks the problem with the Heineken Cup is that the people who run Scottish, Welsh, Irish and Italian rugby have negotiated a deal for themselves which is to the optimum benefit of their unions and the constituent members thereof. Which they have. Which is what you’re meant to do when you’re in charge of an umbrella sports organisation.
“Our view is that Heineken Cup qualification should be based on league form,” McCafferty explains. “There are three of those – the Aviva Premiership, the Top 14 Orange in France and the Pro 12 – and you should take the qualifying teams from the best sides in those leagues. Then it’s a completely meritocratic system. This season the 24 teams in the six Heineken Cup pools are made up of 11 from the Pro 12, six from France and seven from the Premiership. It should be eight across the board.” The Mole will mention RaboDirect’s sponsorship of the Pro12 where the commercially driven Mark McCafferty ignored it.
Now, it will come to your attention that before the Italian clubs joined the Magners/RaboDirect, there were four leagues and the Italian federation provided two teams to the Heineken Cup. Under McCafferty’s logic, the four leagues should each have had six representatives. Then it would have been completely meritocratic [sic]. There was no clamour for meritocracy from Premiership Rugby back then and this latest spouting strikes the Mole as bilge.
Italy is the eighth largest economy in the world with a population of over 60 million people. If Italian rugby has made the decision to channel its resources through two franchises, rather than across ten of its traditional clubs, with a view to growing the popularity of the game in Italy, then well for them. This can only benefit European rugby, and the Mole is still of the opinion that Italy will win a Six Nations title before 2020. The Italians are only doing what the Welsh and Scottish unions did before them in response to the demands of the professional game – reducing the number of teams that are funded at a competitive level in order to channel the best players to centres of excellence.
McCafferty’s contention that “the price you pay for that inclusivity is not necessarily having the best against the best” is arrogant and misguided. The thought that European rugby would benefit by including, for example, Sale at the expense of both Italian clubs is commercially ludicrous. Sale has a home gate of about 7,500. Italy, not to labour the point, is the eighth largest economy in the world. Grow the pie, man!
McCafferty is either unwilling or unable to negotiate a similar deal and Ackford doesn’t take him to task for this. Here is the real problem for English rugby: McCafferty represents the clubs, not the union. The clubs’ priority is themselves, not English rugby. The most flagrant example of that is Saracens’ abortive attempt to play a Heineken Cup match in Cape Town. As Nigel Wray, Saracens chairman and long term benefactor, acknowledged in the aftermath of Munster’s seminal win in Vicarage Road in 1999 “There’s no place called Saracens”. The English clubs’ insularity and short-sightedness isn’t helping them or English rugby. If domestic relegation is an issue that hampers their ability to compete in Europe, then scrap relegation. Issue franchises based on geographic regions, like, er, the counties that strike a chord with supporters rather than rely on journeyman imports bankrolled by ‘benefactors’.
Ackford ends his piece with “Meanwhile the Heineken Cup, having provided the Italian sides with some fresh air and a few fun trips, moves towards the quarter-finals still pretending it’s a competition which embraces the best teams in Europe. Pull the other one.”
The competition moves towards the quarter-finals embracing the best teams in Europe – there’s feck all English representation (although the Saffas will be there)!