Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

The worrying Rugby Championship illusion

Australia and Argentina will face off in a Rugby Championship match at Twickenham this year. Photo / Getty
Australia and Argentina will face off in a Rugby Championship match at Twickenham this year. Photo / Getty

The Rugby Championship, the jewel in Sanzaar's crown, is in danger of being pushed down the same greedy path as Super 18.

This whole business of looking to play tests in neutral territories won't do the Southern Hemisphere any long-term good.

Short-term, of course, it will bring in truckloads of extra cash and create the impression of rugby growing beyond its traditional borders and moving ever closer to being the people's game of choice.

But that's an illusion; a story the game's administrators want to sell to mask the naked commercial greed behind their desire to take big test matches offshore. Argentina are playing their Rugby Championship match against the Wallabies at Twickenham this year not for any other reason than money.

In announcing the decision to shift the game from Mendoza to London, both the Argentinian Rugby Union president Carlos Araujo and Australian Rugby Union chief executive Bill Pulver talked of the opportunity to showcase the game to their respective London-based fans.

What neither said was that if they fill the stadium, the ticket revenue will be an estimated $12 million - probably about five times, at least, what would have been pocketed had the game stayed in Argentina.

Having tested market reaction to the concept, the Australians are talking about taking future Bledisloe Cup tests to offshore venues. The agreement that was reached in 2012 to play the opening test of the Rugby Championship in Sydney for the next 10 years, has been compromised by the impending facelift to ANZ Stadium.

The former Olympic venue will be out of action from 2019 and the ARU has said they see the potential to take the Bledisloe abroad. London would again be an option, as would the United States.

"We are a global game so global opportunities will present themselves," ARU general manager Rob Clarke said. "Argentina are playing their home game against us at Twickenham in the Rugby Championship this year, so there is a precedent there.

"We have to balance that against rewarding our fans here in Australia and giving them top-class rugby content. So we wouldn't make that decision lightly, but it is certainly part of the framework."

The problem is, though, that these offshore ventures are sold without a shred of evidence to support the claims.

Bledisloe tests have been played in Hong Kong (twice) and Tokyo, none of which delivered on the promises made and one didn't even make either nation that much money.

What they were, in truth, was a semi-exotic working week away for a few executives and the opportunity to fill the heads of those who don't think too deeply with ideas that playing neutral venue tests would see a participation explosion in the host country.

Those offshore tests in 2008, 2009 and 2010 felt like the circus had come to town and that's no doubt the vibe that will emanate from Twickenham in October this year when the Pumas play the Wallabies.

It's one thing to turn Super Rugby into an eclectic collection of gimmicky teams that are chosen for their geographic diversity and economic clout, but surely test football can maintain its integrity?

And that begs the question of who is driving this desire to take games to new markets?
It appears that it's the Australian Rugby Union - but it's not really their decision to make.
Sanzaar may have noticed that its four teams made the semifinals of the World Cup - leaving the Northern Hemisphere in a state of agitation about how far they had fallen behind in terms of skill execution, game understanding and general conditioning.

Up north, they are frantic. They can't escape their gym culture. They can't build athletes with the same intuitive feel for the game and what really left them in a poor mental state was the advances the Pumas have made as a consequence of being included in the Rugby Championship.

The Pumas had made the semifinals before, but last year they did so playing pass and catch rugby that was light years ahead of the likes of Ireland.

The Rugby Championship is the envy of the Six Nations, the best thing the sport has and Sanzaar needs to think carefully and collectively about the merits of putting it in a cage, shipping it around the world and making some of the animals perform for money.

The Australians clearly need money to alleviate their financial stress but that doesn't give them the right to trade their share in the Rugby Championship. They can use the November test window to negotiate revenue-generating tests or better still, they could do what New Zealand has done and invest in the game at all levels, improve basic skills and build a sustainable high performance culture that continually produces winning teams that others are happy to pay to watch, sponsor and broadcast.

- NZ Herald

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