Down the years I’ve enjoyed a snigger at the expense of football. Its self-regard and self-image are so far removed from reality that there’s rarely a wait before it again shoots itself in its cultured left foot for my entertainment. But lately I’ve been wondering whether – as a devotee of the oval ball – I’ve really got so much to be smug about.
Rugby, off the field, has never quite come to terms with professionalism. And the resulting collision between administrators (whose spirit lies in amateurism) and clubs (whose survival depends on hard cash) has – as collisions inevitably do – caused no end of damage. For while rugby may be mercifully free of baton-wielding coppers and tantrums from stars, its interminable politicking is gradually destroying the reputation of the game.
The future of the 24-team, pan-European Heineken Cup – the final of which takes place this weekend – is still up in the air. Recently it narrowly escaped a boycott by its power players; the English and French clubs. Farcically, Leicester and Wasps, the Ali and Frasier of the English game, were faced with contesting this year’s final with the ultimate victors excluded from defending their title.
The UK clubs, not unreasonably, wanted a bigger share in the competition from the RFU, arguing that they supply the playing assets for a club competition. The RFU was terrified of such club power, having first tried to resist, and now failing to manage, the rising tide of professionalism.
Knowing this, the clubs became convinced that the RFU would try to minimise their involvement in the European competition. Meanwhile, the French, whose administration has long been riven by the bloody politics, are trying to reduce an onerously long season in a year when they host the World Cup. A cup they think they can win.
It’s the latest battle in a long war that has seen the English boycott the cup once before. Meanwhile, the players fall crippled and exhausted by the wayside, devastated by what The Sunday Times’ Stephen Jones dubbed ‘endless winter’. Both parties have been driving the players hard in the most unforgiving of sporting environments. And, a bit like cricket, there simply isn’t enough of the top stuff to go around.
Which highlights the madness of this latest spat. Not least because there is an increasingly powerful argument that the club-based Heineken Cup could represent the future of the game.
It is played out in the sport’s economic power base of Europe, solidly underpinned by the Anglo-French axis, which has the largest player populations and big vibrant club systems. So wealthy are those systems that they suck in top quality players from around the world at a rate with which overseas unions simply cannot compete.
The Celtic provinces – on the other hand – are financially dependent on the competition and some have claimed a boycott would break them. Ireland, intruders into Anglo-French hegemony with winners from Munster and Ulster, hurt most because the national team’s rise up the world rankings has been in some part based on their provincial sides’ exposure to such a high quality competition.
In other words, this competition is a great spectacle. It allows rugby fans what they have always loved as well: the chance for a rolling party – a Magners in Munster, a rouge in Toulouse, a rosso in Rome or a glass or two in Gloucester. The backdrop to all rugby remains the bar, the banter and – as actor and player Richard Burton once put it –‘the stupendous lies’.
By contrast, the international game is stiflingly over-familiar. Spoils are still habitually the property of five sides: New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England and France.
Ireland and Argentina may occasionally butt into this cosy club, but any statistical examination of results in the professional era, or World Cup finalists, will make the point. And that limits the game’s earning capacity. Sky, for example, surrendered the Six Nations’ rights, concentrating instead on England’s regular square-ups with the southern hemisphere giants and, of course, the Heineken Cup. But the Heineken offers larger pools of sides and different styles. It breaks free from the claustrophobia of the game at international level, while managing to play directly to home town allegiances. For players, there is the chance to compete at the highest level. For advertisers, the ready access to affluent consumers, and for sponsors, awareness.
What damage then to rugby’s reputation? More than 10 years on from professionalism, abject relations between clubs and administrators are close to killing an oft-reprieved golden goose.
And along the way, sponsors, fans, players and the sport have been treated with contempt.
If reputation is the sum of communications and behaviour, it is hard to find a point at which it has been enhanced by either party. And, as PR people know, reputation speaks directly to stakeholders such as sponsors, advertisers and banks. Not to mention fans and players – or customers and staff.
Heineken, which has loyally nurtured this competition since infancy, has preserved a commendable and dignified silence, but must be tired of the uncertainty. Should the brand pull out, who will rush to back a sport that is so in thrall to such self-interested camps?
Rugby has lived long off its cosy intimacy and the benign indulgence of those who see sport as love not money. But those days are gone. Rugby’s reputation as a professional sport is contingent on professional behaviour and communications. Those running the game had better grasp this fact.
Patrick Barrow (above) is director-general of the Public Relations Consultants Association
Five steps to a better future
01. Emphasise the points of agreement rather than conflict. At the moment the impression is ego-fired self-interest shutting out the wider interest.
02. Simplify the cumbersome management structure that involves the hideous blazered complexity of the unions, overlooked by the squabbling and byzantine politicking of the IRB and the egos of club sugar daddies. B2B people want to talk to genuine decision makers.
03. Look to build on and expand the worldwide appeal of club events such as the H-Cup. They remain the only sustainable option.
04. The RFU must accept the reality and imperatives of professionalism. Conduct business in a business-like way.
05. Understand that rugby is not a ‘walk in off the street’ sport. Alienating the cognoscenti via contempt means you will have nowhere to go should they desert you.