The RFU, the grandaddy of them all, is in a mess. This is hardly news to anybody that has been keeping up with recent happenings in the rugby world, and the Mole has been enjoying the excellent coverage provided by the various hacks at the Torygraph, the Grauniad and the London Independent. Amongst the journos, there seems to be a genuine despair at how badly wrong things have gone, and a belief that their readers are both concerned with and willing to follow what amounts to the breakdown of a bureaucracy.
If the situation itself is bleak for English rugby, the clippings that it has generated show that rugby journalism is in pretty good health: journalists are working quite hard to get as close as they can to some sort of basic line of truth, and are trusting that their readers are intelligent enough to care about more than results on the pitch.
Without getting too far into the seamy side of governance which has badly damaged the RFU – because frankly, all the Mole would be doing there would be repeating what he has read in the aforementioned organs – it’s worth looking at the structure of the English game as a contributing factor to the current state of the union. The Mole is of the opinion that the fault-lines run deep; while the grass-roots of the game [schools and amateur clubs, essentially] are relatively healthy, pretty much every other structural element has been compromised since the game went open.
In comparison with the French and the English, every other major union in world rugby – the three SANZAR unions, the SRU, WRU, IRFU and the Italian Federation – has far more control over their professional players.
English and French clubs are commercial businesses with whom the RFU and the FFR have to negotiate … they can’t tell them what to do. This can lead to serious fallings-out, or present difficulties in securing players. For a recent example, think Guy Noves refusing to allow Jean-Marc Doussain to fly out to the World Cup as a replacement for Skrela until after he had played for Toulouse. This would never happen in Ireland/Wales/Italy/NZ etc.
57 Old Farts 63 Old Farts
That’s only part of a significant problem. At the moment the RFU is a democratic but antiquated system whose council is formed from traditional ‘stakeholders’ [or contributors] to the game: the Oxbridge universities, the services, the counties etc.
The Slaughter and May report advises that the so-called 57 Old Farts [thank you, Will Carling] vote themselves out of existence, reducing the council from 63 members to 25 and taking all executive powers away from them. Turkeys voting for Christmas, in other words. It’s not going to happen.
It goes on to say that the RAF, Army and Navy elements should be combined to one ‘Services’ vote, and that Oxford and Cambridge would again be combined … so far, so [arguably] rational.
25 New Farts
It then goes on to say that ‘at least a fifth of the council’ should be comprised of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people, which is all nice and politically correct but a bit bonkers. Disabled people, ethnic minorities and women are people, and even though the RFU is a prehistoric entity, society is gradually taking its toll on even this last vestige of Empire – The Mole doesn’t think that it’s at all impossible that people with disabilities, from ethnic minorities or from the other 50% of the population can make their impact on the Union through the usual route of massive voluntary efforts to rugby from grass-roots up, rather than be parachuted in on the background of their disability/ethnicity/sex.
This 25-strong council will be based on five regional areas – perhaps recognizing that the RFU was the single biggest loser in professionalism, when it failed to co-ordinate a top-down strategy that would see English rugby divided into bigger conglomerations, such as the previous Regions [i.e. the North, Midlands, London Metropolitan teams that played touring teams up until the 1980s] or Counties [as exist in cricket, and used to exist in a thriving county championship until about the same time as the regions] and instead allow clubs – the smallest unit in amateur English rugby – to be taken over by venture capitalists as businesses.
These business now form the basis for the professional game. The reason they produce players, i.e. invest in grass-roots structures in varying ways, isn’t so that said player can represent England at international level: that is the likely by-product, but the primary reason that these owners make an investment in young players is to play for their club, win trophies and increase the club’s profitability. They’re businesses, after all.
Dig Up, Stupid
Despite the intrinsically shaky ground the RFU has found itself on in the last fifteen years, the problem with an attempted restructuring is that there is a strong chance that any further works may only serve to damage the union and lessen its power.
The only structure at the professional level worth building on are the professional clubs, and they are nowhere near an ideal foundation. The Premiership has a very good deal with Sky, and there is no way that its very disparate owners [essentially a load of Richie Rich-types, some of whom are very decent chaps, others of whom are more or less pillocks] will agree to break their clubs up and reorganize under regional auspices … why would they? Rationally speaking, why would anyone?
While The Mole previously made reference to the similarities between the RFU and the FFR with regards to their stance on player-contracting, a key difference between the English and French unions is that there were structures in English rugby to support teams representing wider conglomerations. The County Championship has a long and distinguished past that goes back to 1889.
However, divisional and county rugby structures have entirely disappeared at professional level, and while there are enormous numbers playing the sport in certain areas of the country, in other parts its dying … the North is particularly f*cked.
It seems unlikely now that we’re all familiar with Leicester, Wasps, Saracens, Bath, Sale etc., but it’s plausible that a strong initiative from the RFU when the game went open – or even in the immediate years after – could have established county sides as the prime force in English rugby … just as they are in cricket. There’s your example.
Instead, it’s the soccer approach of individual clubs that has emerged. Those clubs mentioned above [Leicester, Wasps etc.] aren’t any more important or have more illustrious histories than the likes of Lansdowne, Garryowen, Cork Constitution, Ballymena etc. [i.e. any of the long-established Irish clubs], clubs who have obviously suffered from a fading of their grandeur but critically not at the expense of the sport in Ireland. Rugby in Ireland is more popular and more successful than it has ever been.
At another level, a prepared RFU could have trumped the venture capitalists and established regional teams along the lines of Divisional Championship, which was comprised of The North, London Metropolitan, South & Southwest and the Midlands. Here are two interesting takes on the Divisional Championship from 1993:
“To go from club straight into international rugby is just too big a step. Divisional rugby has proved itself to be very important to us. Clearly the evidence is that when we’ve had a good divisional system England have also prospered. That’s fact.
It helps to replicate what international rugby is all about in terms of preparing a side and bringing players together in a different environment. The Divisional Championship gives players the chance to play games and sort out tactics before they play the All Blacks.”
– Geoff Cooke, then-England Manager
“Players can’t take this sort of pounding week in and week out. We’ve now got 18 league games and surely that’s enough to select an England team.”
– John Hall, captain of Bath and the South-West
That would have marked the English rugby structure as different from either football [club-based] or cricket [county-based] and given it a very clear identity, much as the Irish provinces have.
Looking at a Rothmans handbook from 1991-92, it’s very interesting to see make-up of the teams:
- The London team was comprised of players from Wasps, Harlequins, Saracens and Rosslyn Park [so no representation from any of the Exiles clubs, Richmond, Bedford or the London Metropolitan Police teams who provided players to the 1979 side that played against the touring New Zealanders];
- the South & South-West team had players from Bath, Gloucester, Bristol and Plymouth Albion;
- the Midlands drew players from Leicester, Northampton, Nottingham, Coventry and Rugby;
- the North team had players came from Liverpool St Helens, Wakefield, West Hartlepool, Orrell, Sale, Newcastle Gosforth and Waterloo … look at how few of those clubs are professional these days. Rugby in the north of England has crumbled.
The North beat the All Blacks in 1979; there are obviously huge comparisons to be made between themselves and Munster in that regard … and look at the state of rugby in the North of England now compared to Munster.
There are actually far bigger problems in English rugby than who to appoint as the next manager.