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.

A Rugby World In Union In 2019?


It was easy to eulogise about the Irish last year – they have the best set up in World rugby and their results were no fluke at National and provincial level. Rarely can Twickenham have been silenced so easily on a big match day as when a chilly first half made Ireland’s 2018 Grand Slam aspirations a reality and England disappeared into the March murkiness.

Meantime another first half, this time at sunny Murrayfield, saw Scotland dismember a slow starting England and have the game won by the break. My head was in my hands on why I had gone there against my better judgement (I played 4 times there back in the day and it’s always painful whatever the result), but in the end I was admiring Scotland’s true class.

If 2018 was the last chance to experiment before Japan, then the other abiding memory was the extreme pace and wit of South Africa, winning in NZ and then comfortably seeing off England. Faf Du Klerk and his red-hot Springbok wide runners will light up the World Cup and give them a genuine chance of winning.

I may be giving England a hard time but that was their year. Selection and fitness will be critical now for Japan – no time for anything else, then back themselves for some one-off surprises.

So what about 2019? A couple of early pointers……

CVC’s arrival in rugby is an inflection point make no mistake, and it seems to have given the Premiership a shot in the arm immediately. Drama everywhere and a stirring up Manchester way is attracting attention. Meeting Simon Orange recently, Sale Sharks’ new owner, with the wise old heads of Fran Cotton and Steve Smith not far away, was to sense a real passion and commitment. Steve Diamond divides opinion but his players love him. Talking of Du Klerk he is unleashing their backline which looks the most potent in the Premiership bar none.  It is a small squad, but if they can all stay fit watch out everyone. Oh and Sam James is very very underrated.

It seems counterintuitive given that Les Bleus lost to Fiji last November, but French rugby is on fire. Racing 92, Clermont and Toulouse have taken ‘offloading’ to a different level in Europe and Top 14. Breath-taking to watch and surely France can make something out of all this even if Nakarawa, Zebo and Russell can never be ‘coqs sportifs’.

 

HEALTH WATCH

Tragically, four young rugby related deaths in France over the last year have caused soul searching and across the game at large, at last. Players must change behaviour and also be protected, sometimes from themselves, referees must be given clarity and authority and combine that with some empathy, and administrators turn talk into action through law changes. We are trying hard in Europe but it’s a global issue – come in, World Rugby, as soon as you like. Recent pronouncements indicate action coming.

PS Some stunning clashes coming up in Europe this weekend starting tonight at Gloucester – what Brexit ?

H.

Irish Repeat Success In Europe But No Racing Certainty


Some say that Ireland is God’s own country and certainly the rugby gods smiled on them with a clean sweep of European wins this past weekend, a triumphant National team this autumn and the good news goes on, it’s no coincidence.

Continuing the theme, I found myself in Galway to watch Connacht take on Perpignan accompanied by a storm of biblical proportions. Nonetheless a wonderful rugby heartland and with big development plans for their ground which will usher Connacht into a new era of opportunity.

The following day, I travelled to Thomond Park to see Munster cruise past the French Champions, Castres, in second gear. The class of the returning Conor Murray shows what the rugby world has missed.

Under the radar screen, Ulster edged past last year’s form team Scarlets and continue to build an impressive recovery after last year’s troubles. A rising tide lifting all Irish boats…..

Meantime, Toulouse gained a second away win over English opposition and the pool outcome could well see them advance dangerously into the KO phases alongside Leinster, who looked capable but underwhelming against a motivated Bath side.

This competition is no one-horse race, and talking of which Racing 92 look irrepressible. They have amazing skills in multiple positions – how can they have lost any match in the Top 14 this season? Finn Russell is having a ball and loving his new surroundings.

Leicester were no mugs, and George Ford had a sensational game in defeat showing some new skills that impressed me. This was supercharged International rugby in club jerseys, a wonderful tonic after the last week of the Autumn Internationals which were frankly dull and uninspired. One too many?

When you think of Leicester and Bath under pressure in the Premiership, it makes no sense when they can mix it with Europe’s super-élite… somewhat topical, if you think that one of them could end up in the Championship!

Are we about to see the double Scottish breakthrough we have been waiting for? Glasgow and Edinburgh scent the chance to progress in the Heineken Champions Cup but how can we be surprised after the National team mauled England last year at Murrayfield.

Finally, some worrying statistics issued on mental health issues for pro rugby players keep everything in perspective. And tragically, the death announced today of a young Stade Francais player traumatically injured at the weekend leaves us saddened and united in offering sympathies to all our friends in French rugby. RIP.

H.

European Rugby – Vacancies At No. 10


I am not referring to various maverick attempts to take on a political poison chalice, nor is it for me to pass comment on random pre-season behaviour by England’s incumbent stand off,
Danny Cipriani.

Is it midsummer madness or perhaps the endless summer heat, there have been some fascinating pointers towards next years World Cup and they surround the all important no 10 slot. Can it be that the fourth choice All Blacks fly half has come to Wasps as their marquee signing? It looks well justified and yet you cannot dispute that Barrett and McKenzie stand tall, above Richie Mo’unga in the rankings. There is a man who dominated the Super XV for the Crusaders but cannot get selected for the All Blacks. What riches!

South Africa is panicking as they have no back up to Pollard, and nor do Australia for Foley.  Ireland have exported Joey Carberry to Munster to gain experience if Sexton is injured and Wales know they have to make Patchell the real deal to challenge for the World Cup.  France seem not to need a No 10 specialist if they play like they did in the first half of the Third Test v NZ in the summer. This is a team to watch, believe me. At Racing 92 meanwhile, Finn Russell will build on the vision which unravelled England at Murrayfield last year and Scotland will be pleased.

What of England? Farrell should play 10 but the lack of any inside centre causes despair.  Could Jones chat to Baxter and appoint Slade as the season’s 12, then just perhaps for the first time since Will Greenwood we can see some creative decision making.

The season is yet to start, but I wonder if teams will stretch their ambitions – if not, then I suspect they will remain frustrated and it all starts with No 10.

H.

Irish Triumph Would Be The Grandest of Slams


Ireland is on a five day party in England!  Cheltenham first then on to Twickenham to pitch for a Grand Slam – which would be an incredible achievement against a wounded England who are the two times defending Six Nations champions. That would hurt beyond hurt for the hosts and be an all time achievement in my mind for the men in green. Let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to remind ourselves of a few glory-bound teams being undone on the final day of the 5/6 Nations…

Scotland came to Twickenham chasing a Triple Crown in the final match of 1987 against a winless England lacking 5 players who had been banned for fighting, including the Captain. Scotland were thumped 26-12.

England went to Murrayfield on a triumphal march in 1990 to claim the Grand Slam and instead it went to Scotland. No-one is forgetting that one.

England travelled to Cardiff and Dublin in recent years for the ultimate prize and were comprehensively undone on both occasions.

Ireland would do well to remember all this as they try to impose their relentless style of play built on possession and low error count. I have always loved Ringrose as an attacking talent, and together with the Sexton link play there is try scoring potential. But last year it was the pack which subdued the English challenge, which to be fair did not consist of much on the day. I suspect the same approach again lies in store and this year the Irish forwards are brimming with confidence and world class operators.

For England, they should look to play with some organised chaos, old Ireland style. The pack have to play with ferocity and aggression for the first time in the Championship – Kruis has a chance for redemption as does Haskell. Sinckler will be a handful, so will Itoje who owes England a big one. Farrell is a supreme passer in midfield and now will have first shout on the distribution and no-one will come down his channel confidently. He will feed the pace out wide better than Ford. Te’o and Joseph have plenty to prove in my opinion, but they may not be the influential players on the day.

Bottom line England must rip into Ireland and keep it up for 80 minutes, disruption being the order of the day. There is enough anger and hurt in this team surely to deliver the first real performance of a tournament they have barely turned up for. Eddie Jones keeps saying it is his coaching that has failed when England loses – I don’t buy that, it’s a cheap distraction and for another day to wonder whether he should be the attack coach as well as everything else. This is down to the players, and whether you wear white or green I simply cannot call it – but if I had to, then a big hearted England performance can surely be enough at home – just.

Talking of parties, whoever wins tomorrow the party will be long and hard as with all England Ireland contests, and I should know!

H.

‘Le’ Crunch Time For England


I should have known better than risk a visit to Murrayfield with a Scottish team ready to hand out a reminder to England and others that they are a sustainable force again in world rugby. No doubt about that, and it was in the way they won rather than just the result. A cloudless sky and not a breath of wind would not traditionally favour a Scottish team let us be honest. But by the end you had to imagine that they took so much more from the game in terms of their World Cup development.
For England it was both sobering and worrying that they lost key battles in the back row and midfield. All that Italian promise unconverted. The lack of quick front foot ball was one reason (analysed to death by the media but given the back row picked totally obvious) and a lack of leadership another, as in Ireland last year. You think back to a few games in which Eddie’s men have pulled the game out of the fire with some smart ‘finishing’ and it leaves you with that nagging doubt of a team flatlining not developing as expected. 
 
France will build themselves up for the England match by stoking the fires of hostility legendary in Brian Moore’s day when we came up against the full force not only of Gallic strong-arm tactics but unmatchable flair. Not much of the latter these days (except for Teddy Thomas), but they also defend well so England have to find a special inner strength which they say they have. We will see, and if Bastareaud’s new status as leader and line breaker – 18 carries went 34 metres against Italy! – is the benchmark then this is a game which surely carries no fears especially into the last 20 minutes when we know the French will be feeling the pace.
 
Has Ireland ever gone to Twickenham to win the Grand Slam on St Patrick’s day? That is a wild notion but entirely possible if they down the Scots this weekend – who themselves can lift the Six Nations title if certain results go their way. The word I am starting to use for Ireland is relentless, based on the Leinster model of holding the ball for minutes at a time. But this doesn’t look like a Grand Slam team to me, and a pumped up England team (especially if they lose to France) will be playing for their World Cup futures so become very difficult to beat.
 
Finally, Wales’ new open style will allow Italy to express themselves and they will look back at the Treviso performance against Scarlets in the Champions Cup and take heart.
 
The Six Nations has been true to predictions, wafer thin margins between defeat and victory. Wales could be unbeaten, so could France…… I sense more surprises to come but nothing which is really causing the All Blacks to reach for the smelling salts – yet.
H.

Scotland Await England – In Hope More Than Expectation


You know something is afoot when Sir Ian McGeechan featured some of the greatest Calcutta Cup clashes in his weekly article in the Sunday Telegraph. I happened to have played in six of those games back in the 80’s and 90’s and they were all titanic struggles. The implication is that this weekend will be another one of those but I am not so sure. Scotland appear to have believed their own press from the Autumn Internationals – including mine! A cardinal error which was almost repeated against a French side which hasn’t won in months and had only one player, Teddy Thomas, to thank for a ray of hope thus far in the Six Nations.

England are apparently flatlining with an unconvincing win over a Scarlets-dominated Wales, or are they. Appalling conditions were just what the doctor ordered for the free running Welshmen, within 20 minutes England had scored twice and tactically embarrassed the men in Red. But there it stayed and by the end we were wondering if they were plain lucky after some Welsh near misses. I disagree – you can only beat what is in front of you, this is a fine Welsh team, and everyone is improving so by definition so is England. They just seem to get away with not playing much sustained rugby, with flashes of try scoring brilliance and the peerless Farrell directing affairs. It could be that they are developing the priceless ability to make the opposition believe that they simply cannot win. Is this the real Jones impact?

Is there a case for Scotland against whom England tends to lose only every now and then, usually from complacency? The dry weather forecast will help the Scots, but there is no point eulogising about Stuart Hogg’s class because England will snuff him out if there are no other threats. Finn Russell’s inexplicable ‘laissez faire’ attitude towards the game right now would have him out of the team if there was an alternative but there isn’t. He could have a horrible day at Murrayfield, especially as Eddie Jones has now chosen to big him up, or else all that will backfire and he has a blinder! Bottom line is that if only one Scotsman gets into the England team on merit then there should be only one result, and the psychology of last year’s hammering will be lurking under the surface.

It is ironic that the only in form flair player the French seem to have, Teddy Thomas, has ruled himself out with off field discretions, as if it could get any worse. People forget they were within an inch of being two from two but instead face an unlikely challenge from the desperate Italians, whose partial revival at club level cannot yet match the general uplift in standards of every else. It is their best chance for a win this year – I wonder.

Wales’ season rests on a triumph in Dublin so nothing to lose and they can definitely do it – Ireland has yet to click this season and, if so they will be relentless, but in my opinion it is anyone’s match.

Back to England and their approaching date with history – are they really to be denied their tilt at glory by this Scottish team, talented but maverick and not really of the standard of their great sides of the 80’s and early 90’s when they really did send the English ‘homewards tae think again.’ I think not, but then that’s what we imagined in 1990……..

H.