The Business Of Rugby


As the denouement of the Six Nations, Heineken Champions Cup, Challenge Cup and domestic leagues have played out over the last few weeks, it was tempting to look off-field as well as on-field for all the rugby stories.

Here are a selection of some which caught my eye and my theme is the business of rugby….. very topical!

ON FIELD

  1. Smart play and self-belief saw Wales to worthy Grand Slam status – my Welsh birthplace comes to the fore so I can at least claim some heritage! Top performance by Liam Williams in particular across all the games if I had to pick out someone. They went about their business and worked it out game by game- highly professional.
  2. I played in seven Calcutta Cup matches and if you missed a tackle you agonised for days about it, as did everyone else. Twickenham saw a sensational match this year unrivalled in the history of the contest but firstly let’s pay tribute to a Scottish attack which will take so much optimism into Japan and, with a full squad, who knows. I called it a couple of months ago and at least I feel I wasn’t making it up.  Thinking clearly under pressure (TCUP) was coined by Sir Clive Woodward and reflects England’s issue perfectly alongside some leadership questions. This will bother them until they lift the World Cup, no time left to assuage the doubters.
  3. Was there a better weekend of club rugby ever for the Heineken Champions Cup Quarter Finals? 40,000 at Murrayfield to see Munster use their key moments a lot better than an Edinburgh team who will be back. The agony and the ecstasy for Racing and Toulouse players and supporters as a last minute winning try was overturned and the magnificent 14 man resistance by Toulouse saw them squeak through – what quality both teams showed and it ranks as one of the best matches I have ever seen, with the emotion to boot.
  4. A devastated Ulster just failed to overturn Leinster and their King of Wings blew a winning intervention – the ups and downs of sport. Meantime Saracens’ warriors were far too strong for the Celtic version and marched on ominously into the semi-finals where they employed their unique combination of power and pace to overwhelm Munster. For Toulouse, their young side will come again, but it doesn’t help when your 9 is picked at 10 for such a big match as Leinster, and Jonny Sexton wasn’t going to miss that opportunity.
  5. The Newcastle European Finalists are now known and both Leinster and Saracens have set the standard on how well organised you have to be at every level – it is a business. Multiple numbers of Academy based players dominate their squads, ie homegrown. Anyone can buy in talent and it mostly doesn’t work. Invest in your own and you get the best of all worlds.

 

OFF FIELD

  1. Talking of club-grown talent and adherence to the employment rules, or otherwise, in recent criticisms, particularly of Saracens….. let me ask a different question – how many clubs really look after their players from start to finish of their career, like they do? Whether it be injury, loss of form or retirement that suddenly calls time? Cricket has worse statistics, but rugby has a serious issue with depression and mental health issues for retired players in the professional game. Too many clubs pay lip service to this, and it is a real problem. Let us think about the duty of care to the players we enjoy watching and how they cope when it’s all over. I am wondering whether corporate sponsors should be contractually obliged to take some of these multi-talented assets on board?!
  2. Incoming monies are revolutionising the pro game right now and people are panicking because they doubt investors intentions. The reality is that our sport is commercially underdeveloped and these investments will add significant value. None of the rugby governing bodies can operate in a vacuum. It may be painful to break old habits but this is an inflection point for the game.
  3. Meantime, communication and shared objectives are critical in business. Too many rugby authorities think they can grow and develop on their own. Do not live in a bubble!

 

FINALLY

If I was to explain rugby management to an outsider, I would allude to four main characters in the game – the volunteer amateur (99% of the game), paid administrator, wealthy investor, ex player with business experience. Simplified but essentially correct. They all have a rightful voice, but the trick is to take what is best from all of them and the effective compromise is complete. The next 12 months will be the most critical in our professional game to date – and they all have to remember that they owe the game at large a successful outcome. A rocky time ahead, but a game which is surging in popularity around the world can harness huge waves of support.

Think correctly under pressure, on and off the field.

Money Starts To Talk As The Premiership Heats Up


It’s World Cup Year (almost), and rugby seemingly makes headlines on a daily basis.  Journos are back to their editors with begging bowls for more space – they will get it too.

Where to start? Down South….

Good news for Argentina, they win a match in the Rugby Championship to match their Jaguares form having been written off a while ago. Not such good news for England’s World Cup pool when the sleeping giant that is France also seems on the move. Off field, Gus Pichot of World Rugby should think twice before upsetting the entire Northern Hemisphere or perhaps there is a plan.

Is Australia in a spiral or is this just a blip caused by injury and poor form – they don’t travel well in November so all the Home Nations will expect to win. No pressure then.

The All Blacks had to lose sometime and it was self inflicted after all. Mind you, 36 points shipped at home is still eye-watering. They may lose again to either Ireland (probable) or England (a one-off) this November but it would be healthy for the World Cup favourites to know they have some stiff competition.

South Africa is an unknown quantity – when the game is fast and loose anything can happen as we saw, they have pace and game-breakers, very un Springbok-like. In wet conditions,
well, ask England!

In Europe, financially refreshed Stade Francais is riding high in the Top 14 alongside Toulouse, who both carry the largest budgets in the league but play with great style, Clermont making an early season statement too and to think they are in the Challenge Cup. Together with Lyon, they are rivalling the juggernauts of Toulon and Montpellier who need to sharpen their play as well as their chequebooks. I predicted a French revival having seen their play at times against the All Blacks this summer and they remain a dangerous threat to known rankings one year out from the World Cup.

I had to smile wryly as my old Financial world came hurtling into Rugby in the form of CVC’s interest in the Premiership, especially as media and others tried to make clumsy sense of it. Only one point to make – rugby valuations are going up and that is a good thing for everyone.  Eddie Jones liked the look of England’s win in the wet at Cape Town apparently but I prefer the first twenty minutes of the other two test matches. There is some serious form being showed in the Premiership early season to persuade him he can persist with the ambition – not so dull after all and certain new players are already putting their hand up for next year’s World Cup. Don’t pick the squad yet!!

H.

Scarlets Breathe Fire Into The Champions Cup


I made a late decision to go to West Wales for the Scarlets Toulon match at the weekend because I had a feeling about it and also to support the stunning impact that Scarlets have had on the competition. With my birthplace just down the road and Llanelli the scene of many dramatic encounters when I was a player, I have a strong connection with the area!

What a sensational game it was, you had to be there to hear the passion of the sell out crowd who sing Welsh arias like no other and whose team played their dragon size hearts out to claim a home quarterfinal. This Champions Cup has not only come alive but scaled the heights in these pool stages with the climax this weekend past – and Scarlets will fancy that their style of play can challenge even the clear favourites Leinster. After some stunning interplay they had to withstand waves of Toulon attacks and their heroic defence showed its mettle, a key ingredient as a few other sides have found  out this year. The other newcomers La Rochelle  have lit the touch paper themselves this year, and will be unafraid to visit Parc y Scarlets. This quarterfinal will be epic.
 
Elsewhere, I pay credit to every team who had a sniff of a chance and gave it everything but fell short – Wasps, Bath, Ulster, Castres – and just as much to the likes of Glasgow, Harlequins, Northampton and Leicester (eventually) who played with much pride with nothing to go for. Anyone see Hogg’s performance against Exeter ?
 
Outside the tie of the round in Wales, Leinster v Saracens is as heavyweight as it comes and will not be for the fainthearted. Stuart Lancaster will see it as his biggest test yet, and no doubt the Aviva Stadium will be the venue. An International in everything but name and more besides given the status of past versus present Champions.
 
Is there a crisis in England, only one club represented? I was asked two years ago whether Celtic rugby would ever challenge Anglo-French domination again after the Saracens v Clermont final. Only English and French teams in the last 8 that year – I laughed out loud and suggested that Celtic Rugby may have a thing or two to say about that and look at them now! My answer is the same now for the English who will not be offering up excuses. It is true though that the Premiership, Champions/Challenge Cup and International schedule is bruising for the English players, witness all their injuries and the intensity of every game.  Scratched record time on some integrated thinking for the English game and everyone else because the injury count is unacceptable in that context.
 
In the Challenge Cup, I haven’t seen a much better game than at Gloucester on Friday night, where Pau justified their status with a comprehensive win and look very good value in a quarterfinal line-up featuring all the major nations including defending champions Stade Francais who actually lost their opening match against the Russians in Krasnoyarsk! Again, a wonderful mix of teams including Cardiff, Edinburgh and Connacht and it will take a mighty fine performance to win it this year.
 
As we take a breath and look to the Six Nations, Eddie felt compelled to defend the underperforming English clubs – and to be fair, players too – suggesting that this is no guide to International performance. Maybe not, but it does not help. I suspect that the Welsh and the Irish would like to bottle what their regions have served up and deliver it straight onto the International table. If only life was so simple …… ask Saracens, who live to fight another day but it was close and they will have to do it the hard way this year, starting in Dublin. Bring on April!
H.

Hallers Christmas Blog


As the Autumn Internationals played out, followed by two tumultuous European weekends, there has been much to admire as well as ponder as we approach a seasonal period of rest and reflection – unless you are a professional rugby player who isn’t banned or injured in which case not much of either. 

First the good news – I was asked two years ago whether I was concerned about the Irish amid the Anglo-French dominance in the Champions Cup and I suggested they would be back sooner than anyone thought – so it proved. First they provided two semifinalists last year. Then, two weeks ago, a fully refreshed Leinster took the English Champions Exeter down on their own ground and resisted their best efforts the following week. Munster under Rassie Erasmus has injected pace and power into their youngsters and their toothless semifinal against Saracens is a distant memory after their double over Leicester. A compelling set of performances by Ulster could pay dividends, and meantime Connacht is unbeaten in the Challenge Cup. A ruthless Autumn series has left Ireland looking at Twickenham with real confidence and while the Calcutta Cup is going to be tumultuous, England v Ireland will be something else again.

You could argue that the performance of the French team in the Autumn was nothing short of disastrous but they are in good shape in Europe, sporting their multinational squads. A rejuvenated Clermont look dominant and the rising star of La Rochelle have illuminated the competition, while Montpellier and Racing 92 lurk dangerously. I love the look of Rounds 5 and 6 with Toulon, Bath and Scarlets all in the hunt in their pool.

As for the English, I presume Eddie Jones finalised his extra squad members this Autumn because little else was established than Daly’s star quality. At the club level  some signs of mid season tiredness but there is no margin for error in Europe.

More worryingly… here we are again, and whether accidental or deliberate the number of damaging head contacts continues apace. Donnacha Ryan, an influential International name, has called it ‘a blight on the game’ and calls for action. In my opinion tackling targeted above the shoulders could be called automatically yellow and possibly red with a minimum six week ban. Then people will stop doing it. The only thing about the game that is going soft is in the coaching diktat which demands high tackling to stop the offload. Plain wrong.

Do I need to mention the clear out again? Ask Faletau how he feels about his knee ligament injury caused by exactly that by Mathieu Basteraud

To end on a positive and festive note however, the Northern Hemisphere rugby world is buzzing at most levels and the Rugby Club Christmas parties and carol-singing will be in fine voice.

To anyone who is still reading my piece at the end of a long but fulfilling year, thank you for that, and my New Year hopes and fears will be with you well before the old year rings out.

A Merry and peaceful Christmas to you all.

H

TACKLING NOT ALWAYS A PAINFUL ISSUE


The season to date has been a revelation in some ways. Players are running out of contact and into space with short intensive bursts of passing. The All Blacks have shown the way – again – and have lit a touch paper. Take a look at Lyon of the Top 14 and Newcastle in their opening matches.  Two unfancied teams with few stars are winning home and away with some panache. I used to call it passing out of the tackle, but even Will Greenwood is presenting a programme devoted to the offload as it is now called, and as if it is some new strategy. No, what is clear is that the attritional tactic of ‘round the corner’ popping or phase play has been rumbled. Too boring, too many injuries and unsuccessful. Long may it continue, but a rerun to videos of the past will show that the practice was alive and well until Rugby League defence and attack coaches got in the way.

Pin point passing from midfield is also developing nicely, as Toomua of Leicester has shown to date and as the Scarlets are demonstrating as a team. Their status as Pro 12 Champions last year was no fluke and they will fancy their chances in the Champions Cup this year. Cruden now at Montpellier could make even Francois Steyn look like a master centre and make a powerhouse team even more unstoppable. I have seen the throwback from a bygone era, Gavin Henson, playing with such sublime handing skills that some people are thinking of a Wales recall. He is certainly the flip side of Jamie Roberts, but if the Scarlets style of play is adopted neither of them are needed.

Being simply able to pass out of contact is welcome and due to the fact that  defences are having to throttle back on the double tackle or even the high tackle. Too many yellow or red cards and stacks of injuries. The tackling technique of the modern professional player is reckless and prone to cause serious damage on both sides. There’s nothing tough about it, simply foolhardy and senseless. Who is teaching these crazy techniques? Stand up all defence coaches who are often pictured brooding in the background and growling with pleasure when a big hit goes in. Well we have had enough and by the looks of it so have the players.

By all means place a line across the shirt and then the player will know if his tackle rides up the body he could be in trouble. In addition, ban the clear out. How many more times? Then the injury count will reverse as players will realise its a very healthy option as will the coaches.

In my role as Chairman of EPCR, I have the benefit of travelling through Europe and discussing rugby issues of the days with Presidents, Owners, Administrators, Coaches and players. They all have valuable views but they are rarely combined.

The general health of players has hit the headlines, distressingly, because of record numbers of injuries. In addition to poor tackling technique and increased physicality, this is all linked in to how many games they play in a cluttered season, and not just that how much time they spend training or in a gym. Forget that the Lions trained three times in a day – because the day was there perhaps – look at what a traditional week’s training looks like at a professional club, called a ‘day at the office’.

Consider the International season, Six Nations and Autumn Internationals, plus summer tours, Lions tours and the Rugby World Cup. Then the domestic season, be it the Premiership, Pro 14 or the Top 14 in France. Finally, the blue riband European tournaments, the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup. Divide them into the weeks of the year and throw in a mandated rest period and you have the problem right in front of you.

The assets, or players, are rented out for money to the Unions – in some cases – or are owned by both Unions and leagues. They also have a voice.

Why do the key people in this debate not sit round a large table and work out a compromise, before we really do some damage off the field as well as what is happening on the field.

Can anyone think of a ready made group who could discuss this and make some good decisions? I can.

H.