Paul Lewis: English rugby trying to bully the little guys

By Paul Lewis

RFU Chief Executive Ian Ritchie. Photo / Getty Images
RFU Chief Executive Ian Ritchie. Photo / Getty Images

When you listen to some of the pronouncements coming out of England's Rugby Football Union and, in particular, boss Ian Ritchie, you fear for the future of the international game.

There's not a lot of statesmanship coming from Ritchie and the Northern Hemisphere. It's all about his own back yard and sod everyone else.

Ritchie rejected New Zealand ideas to redress the financial gulf between the almost obscenely wealthy North and a Southern Hemisphere so strapped for cash its premier Super Rugby competition is being ludicrously expanded to attract more TV money to pay players more so they don't get attracted offshore by, you guessed it, Northern Hemisphere clubs. Aaron Cruden, Owen Franks and Charlie Faumuina are reportedly being romanced right now. It is also why the All Blacks pursue fundraising test matches in the US and other venues outside well-trodden paths.

Ritchie's solution to proposals to introduce a global calendar, a world showdown between the southern and northern club champions and sharing more of the wealth generated by the visits to the north by southern teams who are the best in the world was: "Go and build a bigger stadium if you want to increase your revenue growth."

This level of speciousness underlines the difficulty the All Blacks face; the best players in the world but the most fragile funding of any major rugby nation - part of the reason for the rather desperate expansion of the Sanzaar competitions. You get the feeling that if Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg walked past Rugby HQ, he'd be dragged in off the street and asked if he wanted to field a team in Super Rugby. They could be called the 'Facebook Friends Fifteen'.

Ritchie is the same pooh-bah who insisted he wouldn't resign as chief executive after England's inglorious exit from the 2015 World Cup. He'd previously said responsibility for England's performance in that tournament (he appointed Stuart Lancaster) would be his. Whoops. It's the same chap, dear boy, don't you know, who steered the RFU to record turnover of over £200m last year (almost £23m profit after the World Cup and distributions to the clubs) for the first time in their history.

Ritchie is being criticised by British coaches after he maintained the next coach to guide England after expat Aussie Eddie Jones would have to have "international experience". It's the same RFU who actively discourage players from going overseas but it's OK for coaches, apparently.

With Kiwi coaches like Vern Cotter, Joe Schmidt, Warren Gatland also coaching in the north, it's clear Ritchie is quite happy to suck the brains of the Southern Hemisphere but not to help foster the environment that gave rise to their expertise.

No sooner had Ritchie declined to share more revenue from Twickenham's hosting of the crowd-boosting All Blacks, for example, than he criticised the schedule for the 2017 Lions, recommending a reduction to guard against player burnout. There's no question the Lions have a tough itinerary next year but Ritchie's stance shows thinly-veiled hypocrisy.

When the All Blacks go to Twickenham, they get costs covered and that's it. When the Lions visit New Zealand, the RFU similarly gets nothing else. So knowing the south is strapped for cash and is seeking ways of boosting its financial base, Ritchie is now advocating cutting down on New Zealand Rugby's ability to fill that "bigger stadium".

No one owes New Zealand rugby a living, of course, but where is the international perspective, the statesmanlike concern for the world game - as opposed to finding ways to get England to the top of the heap? We in New Zealand are smug at the moment because the All Blacks are so clearly the best team in the world and the jersey is taking precedence over the wallet - for now. The Poms, meanwhile, have the money but display little of the talent, creativity and adventure of the game.

Ritchie's excluding comments make it seem as if the Poms are playing a high-stakes game of poker, trying to bully the little guys out of the game by attacking the short stack; using their financial reserves to bust the other player or players.

If things go to their logical conclusion, the rich will get richer, the clubs will gain more control until the international game becomes as diluted as most international rugby league fixtures. The financial gulf will deepen with even more southern players flying north for the summer and beyond. If you want an idea where that will lead, look no further than the English Premier League, awash in money but which has just seen England manager Sam Allardyce (salary: £3m a year; the highest in the world) resign because he inappropriately used his position to try to gain a dodgy £400,000 deal.

Greed begets greed; money can obscure the greater good. As the wealth of the north grows, so the ability of countries like New Zealand to retain its rugby talent diminishes.

You'd hope common sense and a world view would prevail but I am reminded of the trenchant UK restaurant critic A. A. Gill who once defined "English meanness" as a man he knew who put out a bird feeder in the garden of his weekend cottage - because he loved the sight and sound of the birds. But when he went home on Sunday, he took it down and put it in the shed.

Here's hoping whoever succeeds Ritchie will be more generous with the birdseed.

- Herald on Sunday

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