What’s the point of rugby?

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That might sound like a stupid question, but it’s one that needs to be asked.

If the people with power in the game at club and union level don’t ask it, or if they come up with the wrong answers, the game will head in the wrong direction and become less and less relevant.

In this article I’ll go through what rugby is for, where it’s fundamentally lost its way and what it needs to do to get back on track.

The primary purpose of rugby is to enjoy and learn from competition and participation. As a player it’s physically and mentally challenging and risky. It builds character and camaraderie. You need your mates to have your back and vice versa. You enjoy a beer with them – and your opponents – afterwards.

As a fan you want high-quality, exciting competition that you can afford to watch live and/or on TV.

Springboks

(Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

Professional players need to be able to make a good living with wages the game can afford to pay. They also need to be looked after physically and mentally too so that they can expect long and full careers and lives.

Club and union leaders need financial security to be confident that they can continue to give players and fans – and referees, coaches and everyone else the game needs – the above without doing anything to erode the things that matter.

This is where the primary problem lies, because some leaders, with enough money from outside rugby to more than guarantee financial security for their clubs, consider money a weapon to gain an advantage in competition. I’m talking primarily about very wealthy owners of some clubs in France, England and Japan who have used that wealth to fund long-running massive financial deficits caused by attracting players on higher wages than their competitors. This has thrown everything out of balance and damaged so much of what truly matters in the wider game.

This presents other leaders – of national unions in smaller countries and of clubs in the same league without owners who are willing and able to fund these deficits – with a dilemma. Do you raise the white flag and let others take all your best players? Or do you fight to keep them, even if it erodes some of those things that are the whole point of rugby? Most have chosen the latter course, meaning that, for example, all but one club in the English Premiership continually post losses, and southern unions have struggled (but generally managed) to break even.

The sport’s governing body, World Rugby, has also had a choice to make to reduce the impact of the wages arms race: directly tackle it with legislation or try to boost the income of national unions. It has chosen the latter, compromising what truly matters. For example, when a world Test championship was proposed, itself solely as a money-making venture for national unions, failure was inevitable because some countries resisted the introduction of relegation or the inclusion of countries with top-12 world rankings but smaller economies.

Just think about that for a moment. They didn’t want participation based on merit on the field; they wanted it to be determined by financial contribution. Is that really what rugby has become?

So where has this left us? In the European club game there are great risks of financial sustainability, with clubs relying on owners to fund serial losses and once-great clubs like Richmond and London Welsh overreaching themselves and going under. Following on from this, player welfare and career longevity are compromised in long seasons as owners seek more revenue to reduce their losses.

The crazy thing is that this is totally self-inflicted, as the clubs could easily agree to reduce the salary cap and the scope to hire marquee players above the cap.

Unfortunately common business sense and acting for the good of the wider game seems to go missing from even the most successful businesspeople when it comes to their ownership of a rugby club. Yes, there is the possibility that throwing money around might buy short term success (although it usually doesn’t) but it won’t last (look at Toulon) and, sorry to burst the fantasy bubble of some of the club owners, it won’t draw in the number of fans other sports need for long-term sustainability at these wage levels. Sport relies on tradition, and winning a competition nobody cares about won’t lead the soccer supporting masses to spend their money watching a rugby club.

Of course there is one form of the game where most matches are watched by millions on TV every year in France and England. It plays to full houses in massive stadia, features nearly all of the best players in the world and actually makes money – many many millions of euros and pounds. Because whereas nobody in England cares about Saracens, national pride is at stake when England play. And the most-watched and biggest money-maker of all is the Rugby World Cup.

It is unspeakably obvious that to thrive, rugby needs the international game to thrive. Yet clubs constantly undermine it. Players are overworked by their clubs and unable to give their best in Tests. Some are forced to play on rest weekends in the Six Nations and Rugby Championship – the latter resulting in two needless 20-hour flights in consecutive weeks and the former Finn Russell missing the Scotland France game through injury.

Wales

(David Rogers/Getty Images)

And once again players from Pacific Island nations chose club over country at World Cup time at the behest of their paymasters. That’s no criticism of the players with livelihoods at stake and extended families to support – clubs should not put them in that position. It can’t be denied that the behaviour of some clubs has reduced the effectiveness of the Pasifika challenge in recent World Cups, which has robbed us all of an exciting ingredient.

Let’s reflect on these things for a moment. The part of the game that few care about and loses money is massively eroding the part of the game that makes money and even general sport fans care about. This is a sport that’s lost its way.

Sadly, things only seem to be getting worse. Seeing no way out from their self imposed spiral of deficit and debt, the English clubs have sold a share of their league to a private company and the Six Nations have done the same. Yes, they will bring in short-term cash to loss-making clubs, the English RFU which suddenly, incredibly, started losing money, and Celtic nations that aren’t big enough to match England and France economically. But ask Formula One fans about how they lost out when the same company bought their sport. This from one of the team bosses at the time: “All their actions have been taken to extract as much money as possible from the sport and put as little in as possible”. Warning ignored.

Now for the most important point. Rugby does not need more money. Actually it could thrive far more than it is now with far less. It just needs to spend the money it has more wisely. Players can earn a fantastic living, just not with wages that aren’t justified by the income earnt by the game.

Since there is no sign of the club game dealing with the destructive impact of the wages arms race, World Rugby needs to confront it head-on. There are many ways it could do this. End the grandparent rule and residential qualification for Test rugby except for obvious non-rugby emigration, such as children and to allow tier-two countries to select players from their diaspora. Compulsory club stand-down periods for foreign-born players during international windows, except when they are clearly not needed for international duty. International windows to include rest weeks. Clubs employing foreigners to pay into a World Rugby-administered fund for the benefit of Test players in the employee’s own country. Clubs making losses over a three year period to be banned from signing players until their finances are in balance.

Rugby needs to decide what it wants to be A second-rate soccer with loss-making clubs and a marginalised international game, forever making compromising choices as it scrambles to make ends meet? Or a financially sustainable sport, giving life-enriching experiences to its participants, paying good but affordable wages to pros, with solid grassroots and a thriving international pinnacle?

The right choice is obvious. But is there the courage and will to make it?

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