Rugby: Old World threat to global master plan

As rugby moves towards a brave new world, Gregor Paul reports that fading powers are standing in the way

Scotland coach Vern Cotter. Photo / Getty Images
Scotland coach Vern Cotter. Photo / Getty Images

After years of selling itself as a global game when it never really was, rugby is poised to take grip in territories it has always dreamed of conquering.

The All Blacks are scheduled to play in Chicago this year, Samoa in 2015 and probably Singapore in 2016. Super Rugby is also heading to Argentina and probably Singapore.

Russia has hosted the World Sevens, Germany, Holland and Canada are bidding to be included on the World Series Sevens circuit and Rio will welcome the abbreviated game at their Olympics. The 2019 World Cup will be in Japan, and Madagascar and Kenya were within a whisker of qualifying for next year's tournament. The game is growing. Rugby is taking hold in new markets and the question to ponder is whether the IRB world rankings will start to look different in the next decade or so.

Is it only a matter of time before the likes of the US, Canada and Japan are regularly beating Scotland and Italy? What about Kenya, who are a serious threat on the sevens scene? Can they use their natural athletic playing base to learn the nuances of the set piece to become a 15-a-side force?

Are Germany, Holland and Spain poised to close the gap on the likes of Georgia and Russia? And what about the Pacific Island nations? Now they have their own players' association, will they be able to lobby the IRB and be given more regular tests?

In contrast, some of the game's established nations are heading the other way or are in serious danger of doing so. The biggest worry is France. Their professional league will be the richest while their national team struggles to stay in the top 10. Currently seventh, France are only a poor November away from slipping further.

Their ability to over-perform against the All Blacks distorts the true picture. The French have won only six of their last 15 Six Nations games and have finished fourth, last and fourth since the World Cup.

In June, they were thumped 3-0 by Australia and were so dismal in the series, coach Philippe St Andre lashed out about the domestic scene.

"We're suffering from this set-up," he said. "France is the only place where the league is more important than everything else. What worries me is that we're getting more and more serious injuries. If we don't realise that top players shouldn't play more than 28-30 games a year, we're going to keep having problems."

The Welsh have a dangerous national side and enough youth to be confident they can sustain it for a few years yet. But the clubs are at war with the national union and there is the serious prospect of them no longer having a viable domestic professional competition. What then?

The Scots are perennial strugglers and, while Glasgow reached the RabodirectPro12 final this year and Vern Cotter has been installed as national coach, staying in the top 10 would be a solid achievement.

All of this hypothesising begs a bigger question. Will the balance of power within the IRB shift to reflect this changing landscape?

The game has new movers and shakers. The key emerging markets already have sizeable and growing player bases and potentially enormous commercial opportunities to explore. The US is the largest sporting market in the world, Japan's biggest corporations have long loved rugby and Russia has plenty of oligarchs with big enough egos to want vanity products but not big enough budgets to buy football clubs.

But as rugby moves closer to this brave new world, its decision-making power still sits in the hands of the fading empires. Scotland, Wales and Ireland each have two IRB council votes and, with those, the effective power to block any initiative they don't like.

The IRB council comprises 28 people, with a 75 per cent majority required to approve any business. The Celts have six votes and combined playing numbers of about 350,000. The US have 1.4 million players, the biggest economy in the world and one vote.

The key decision makers are not necessarily reflective of the game's current or potential power bases. In 2008, a group of experts published a report called Putting Rugby First, which urged the IRB to instil a more democratic, modern and reflective governance that enabled them to better drive and grow the game in emerging markets.

The report, unsurprisingly, was rubbished by Ireland - a reaction that only reiterated the problem. Those who fear being left behind by emerging market growth can work from inside to slow it.

The IRB also dismissed the findings and gave their views on the council make-up. "While no system is perfect, it is not unreasonable to argue that those that provide the bulk of players and money into the game should have the bulk of the representation.

"All unions are represented on the IRB council. We will continue to ensure our democratic structures meet the needs of rugby at any given point as the game evolves."

If the time hasn't already arrived, it surely can't be far away before the IRB have to consider making significant change to their democratic structure. The only problem with that, however, is that to implement any change, the Celts would have to vote for it. And what are the chances of that?


Chasing Asia may be Super mistake


Whether Singapore or Japan gets the nod, they are being handed an impossible mission. Photo / Thinkstock

If Super Rugby's proposed new format ever made sense, it suddenly stopped with the announcement the 18th team will be based in either Singapore or Japan.

Sanzar will soon be cranking up the PR machinery to explain why it makes perfect sense to place an Asian team in an African conference. All sorts of heart-warming stuff will be spouted about new markets, growing audiences, playing numbers and rugby's new standing as a sport with chutzpah.

The cynics, of whom there should be plenty, may wonder why Sanzar doesn't come straight out with it and say Singapore and Japan can bring more money than anyone could shake a stick at.

Singapore packs a powerful economic punch, while Japan remains the world's third-largest economy. There's no other reason to go there. Ignore the pie-in-the-sky theories that a championship team can be built out of nothing in one of these venues.

Whichever one gets the nod, they are being handed an impossible mission. Finding players, coaches and executives will be hard because they need to be personnel good enough to shape and mould a culture, spirit and collective ability to compete.

The geography of the whole thing will be a tyranny they never stop battling - weeks on end in Africa and in-and-out visits to Australasia.

Building a committed, engaged, genuine fan base will not be without its challenges, either, and there's potential for the venture into Asia to look like Sanzar's greatest mistake.

Rob Nichol, director of both the International Rugby Players' and New Zealand Rugby Players' associations, says the shortlist for the 18th franchise is both an opportunity and threat.

Players have adopted a wait-and-see attitude. The big thing for them was to be consulted, which they were, and if Sanzar were hell-bent on expanding into new territories, then placing a team in Asia made as much sense as other potential options of Southern Europe and South Africa.

"So much depends on the Asian venture being given enormous support and help," says Nichol.

"What teams such as the Crusaders, Chiefs and Bulls have shown is that culture is everything. It's one thing to have money but it's knowing what to do with that money - how to offer the right environment for the players, how to build the right coaching teams and create a unique culture."

Even if the new team gets everything right with its set-up, which would be nothing short of miraculous, history has shown that Super Rugby's newest entities such as the Force and Rebels have high player turnover.

With so much adversity built into the path of the 18th team, will it ever be anything more than a club aspiring players use to get themselves to other destinations, to earn contracts with teams they want to play for longer-term?

The new venture can be looked at from all angles but each one reveals the same thing. Placing a team in Asia is a get-rich-quick scheme for Super Rugby and it's not difficult to understand why that's an attractive proposition.

The Australian Rugby Union would have effectively been bankrupt last year had it not been for the cash injection hosting the Lions brought. Even with that income, their combined losses over the last two years are A$15 million.

The New Zealand Rugby Union, while in good financial shape, subscribe to the Wallis Simpson theory that you can never be too thin or have enough money.

That's because the game here is only ever one broken relationship away from ruin - lose AIG or adidas and the money out will be a bigger pile than money in, hence the need to diversify income streams.

There's also the likelihood the inclusion of an Argentine team in the new format will be a break even exercise. The game there has commercial support and a wealthy fan base but the cost of running teams in and out of Argentina will be high.

Singapore is the proverbial light to Sanzar's moth. The city state has created a sporting hub which includes a state-of-the-art 55,000-seat national stadium and is actively touting to host major teams and events, including the 2018 World Cup Sevens.

It's also believed Singapore is the most likely venue if the All Blacks play a test outside the November release window in November 2016.

Chasing money to underpin the competition is not something Sanzar should be ashamed about. With more money comes the ability to keep more players, build better facilities and grow participation rates in the established nations.

- Herald on Sunday

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