It’s that time of year again when club competitions are just beginning to take off and gather some momentum, the international game gate crashes the party and rips out the guts of squads rendering fixtures a lottery.
If your team is in a country where teams are plentiful, squads heavy with competition for places and bank accounts full and ready to spend money on southern hemisphere players looking to earn some cash, then you may feel the pain less than others. It also helps if you’re team is in a league of 14 others – populated by just the right saturation of “indigenous” participants.
However, if you’re a Celt, you’re in trouble. Squads are decimated, and even if national coaches deign to release players for club games, coaches have very little time to prepare and integrate these “here-today, gone-tomorrow” players. It takes some sort of organisational wizardry for a squad to be shorn of 20 or 30 players and still function. No wonder the Pro12 is the weakest of the three professional leagues in Europe – it’s only half a competition.
This season has seen the Pro12 start during the World Cup. Yes folks, that’s right, during the World Cup. So what we’re left with is basically a second XV competition. Of course it’s a great leveller – those who supply the bulk of the international squad suddenly find themselves facing teams like Connacht, or Newport Gwent Dragons who largely remain untouched by the ravages of the Six Nations.
So why is this rape and pillage of the club game allowed to continue? In the case of Ireland, the answer is simple – there’s only one employer, and he who pays the piper calls the tune. In the case of Wales, it’s more complex – a sort of mass kamikaze, group-think, lemmings racing towards the cliff.
Those propping up the pro-game in Wales want cash from the Welsh Rugby Union to keep funding their squads, and there’s little vision on show to indicate that they can see beyond the end of the next Six Nations-funded cheque. The Pro12 is a bit of a joke competition – derisory TV money from Ireland and an apathetic Welsh public that would much rather pay to see club competition against the English. It’s underfunded, poorly promoted, riven by gerrymandering and devalued by international call-ups. So the club owners in Wales need more money (no sign of it coming from the Pro12). So they are happy to support a never-ending stream of Team Wales fundraising games, which in turn weaken the Pro12 and the cycle continues. You get the picture.
If you’re a fan of club rugby, then this shambolic mess is crying out for some visionary leadership and someone willing to upturn the apple cart and bring some order to a fragmented northern hemisphere season that is strangling opportunities for faster growth.
Rugby players are athletes, and athletes are coached to peak at key events. If you’re planning for the Olympics, you will focus on building your fitness levels to maximum effect for that competition. What athlete could cope with “season” peaks dotted randomly around the calendar. If the international games is supposed to be the peak of the sport, why are international competitions held a few months after the season starts and then again slap, bang in the middle of the season? Shouldn’t they be at the end of the season – giving players a target to reach peak fitness and performance, building gradually throughout the season?
An overhaul of the international game is desperately needed. The half-cock Six Nations (usually decided by the nature of the draw as only half the fixtures are played) should be held at the end of the season – a focus for players to reach their pinnacle performance after domestic cup finals. And while we’re at it, what are the Italians doing in this competition? They should be dropped and a relegation play off for the bottom team introduced to break down the doors of the cosy closed shop. Play a Five Nations competition home and away and you have eight weekends to focus on. Add to that two more International Games (tours or other “fund-raisers” if you must) and the top of the pyramid has 10 international games a season. Enough. Abandon the Autumn Internationals (which only serve to fund Southern Hemisphere coffers) and suddenly the season is taking shape.
Start with domestic competitions and then move to the Europe-wide tournament. End the season with the international game. The international game is the pinnacle, with players peaking their performance for the end of the season. The club game is free to develop and gain momentum without losing key players and rendering many results a lottery.
Why is this obvious solution so difficult to implement? Well, at the root of the problem is the fatal error of placing tradition above the development of the game. With the blazers in charge, the international game still gets to do pretty much as it likes, with the club game expected to fall into line. The closed-shop at the top end of the sport largely excludes any opportunity for tier 2 teams to break the stranglehold. And now with the increasing influence of TV money, the April-May-June period already contains a congested sporting calendar, so it’ll be a difficult sell to Murdoch and co..
So any change to this mess is not going to come from the blazers. It has to come from the club game – by far the better attended and faster growing section of the game. We can only hope that when club owners in France and England finally wake up to the potential of the sport and take control, that they will do a better job of developing the game than those Unions who are so averse to change.