RFU must address uneasy truce
April 6, 2011
Sonny Bill Williams was one of the stars of the show as the Crusaders lit up Twickenham last month © Getty Images
Crusaders v Sharks at Twickenham, the first taste of Super Rugby in the UK, with proceeds going to the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal Fund: it sounded like a no-brainer but should the Rugby Football Union (RFU) have embraced it so enthusiastically?
Saracens Chairman Nigel Wray was definitely not best pleased. It was staged in direct opposition to their Aviva Premiership game against Newcastle at Watford - 15 miles from Twickenham at most - and he was understandably angry when the gate was 1500 down on last season despite the fact that his team are riding high and on course for the play-offs.
He was quick to point out he had every sympathy with the earthquake victims but only £5 from each ticket sold went to the cause and Wray's real beef was that the RFU had yet again taken a decision without consultation or consideration for the professional clubs, most of whom are struggling to stay afloat.
I have some sympathy. The number of clear weekends, when you can market a game properly, is already severely compromised as I have discovered since agreeing to become actively involved in helping to run my old club, London Welsh.
The only thing I would point out to Nigel is that it is even worse in the Championship, the second tier of professional rugby. Premiership matches are only scheduled on two of the four November international weekends and two of the five Six Nations weekends; Championship matches go head to head with internationals all the way through and it wrecks any chance of getting a decent crowd.
Sod's law gave us a very attractive November schedule with three home matches, two of them against Worcester and Cornish Pirates, both top four clubs. During the Six Nations we were hosting Bedford, another well supported club in the top four, and Nottingham, who finished the regular season in fifth place. It is soul destroying as you try to build some momentum in your marketing.
The fact that it is still just 'the Championship' - not the Aviva or Guinness Championship - says a great deal. Despite promising a brave new world when the Championship was formed, the RFU have not even been able to find a sponsor. Whilst the Premiership clubs are struggling, Championship clubs are totally reliant on benefactors.
Grouse over - the Twickenham match was a terrific spectacle but, as usual, the press reaction here was little short of hysterical. The Dan Carter-Sonny Bill Williams combination is very special but to immediately declare that southern hemisphere rugby is a vastly superior product on the strength of this one game is crazy.
I watch a lot of Super Rugby on television and this was a truly exceptional game. I love the freedom and inventiveness if some of the back play but none of the 'Super' teams can match the power and the passion of Munster or Leicester up front and, as we know from South Africa's success at the last World Cup, they are a vital element.
So, I am certainly not going to write-off the northern hemisphere sides on the strength of some dazzling back play from two of the most talented rugby players on the planet. Rugby is still very much a team game.
Going back to my original theme - life is so much simpler when the season is divided into separate sections with the main domestic competition being completed before international rugby takes over. How the RFU must rue the decision back in 1995 (when the game went 'open') to declare a year's moratorium instead of taking control and creating a new professional structure immediately.
That year effectively cost them full control of the game in England and resulted in this uneasy compromise with constant battles for the services of the top players.
Scotland have no such problems. Andy Robinson would give his right arm to have the sort of talent pool Martin Johnson can call on but the England Manager would love to be able to do what Robinson has done in the last week.
Captain Alastair Kellock, Richie Gray, John Barclay, Ross Ford and Allan Jacobsen have all been stopped playing for the rest of the season so they are in peak condition for the World Cup. Kellock has a niggling injury that Robinson wants to give time to heal but his sports scientists are telling him the others have been playing too much rugby and simply need a break.
Gray is a prime example. The 21-year-old has doubled his game time this year and Robinson has decided it is in his long term interests to take a rest. 'This is for his development for the World Cup but also for the future,' he says. 'It's looking ahead to two, three years time as well.' Under the present system Johnson will never be able to make that sort of decision - the relationship between club and country is, at best, an uneasy truce and the RFU need to sort it out.
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