Friday, 27 March 2020

Rugby Players' Militancy Misplaced

If, as is being reported, Premiership rugby players do decide to challenge the 25% pay cuts imposed by the clubs during the period in which rugby is suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, they are seriously misjudging the mood of the nation.

Nearly everyone, including your truly, is taking a financial hit during this crisis – so why should professional rugby players be any different?

Apparently players have received legal advice via the RPA telling them how to reserve their rights to claim their full entitlement – which is fair enough given that the RPA has a duty to protect the players’ interests – but I’d be disappointed if players chose to act on that advice given the current climate.

And, let’s face it, wage bills are already too high – as demonstrated by the fact that, at the last time of counting, only one Premiership club was in profit and then only barely so – and it would surprise no one if one or more clubs failed to survive the current crisis.

I’m not saying the players don’t deserve the money they earn – careers are short and, other than the superstars of the game, most rugby players earn relatively modest amounts – but as things stand there simply isn’t enough money in the game to sustain current wage levels in normal times, let alone during this shutdown. 

Let’s hope that common sense prevails.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

The Big Issue: Professional Rugby

All this time at home, with no rugby to occupy me, has led me to ponder some of the bigger issues in the game.

So, here is my first attempt (in this series) at trying to set the rugby world to rights as I tackle the not inconsiderable subject of professional rugby in England and its increasingly difficult relationship with the community game.

It is a topic about which I have pontificated on a number of occasions – but in this post I am going to attempt, almost certainly unsuccessfully, to make sense of it all.

To my mind there is little doubt that the current national crisis we are enduring due to the Covid-19 pandemic must inevitably lead to some fundamental changes in the game in England.

At the elite level most if not all Premiership clubs have either agreed or imposed wage reductions on their players, while the RFU has announced an expected reduction in revenue of around £50m in the coming year, leading to salary cuts for senior figures including, it appears, Eddie Jones.

Whilst the RFU have announced measures to support grassroots clubs whose seasons have been cancelled, it is not that difficult to see ultimately who will bear the brunt of the RFU’s loss of revenue. 

Unless things change.

The thorny issue of whether the Premiership should be ringfenced is bound to rear its head once again. As I have stated before, I do not believe that there is enough money in rugby in England to support two professional leagues – so the question for me is not whether the Premiership should be ringfenced but rather when will the inevitable split between the elite professional game and the grassroots community game happen?

I say "inevitable" but there will, of course, be significant resistance as there is a perception that any kind of ringfencing will lead to the withdrawal of wealthy financial backers from lower league clubs. To which I would say, why do you need wealthy financial backers if you are not paying your players?

And there’s the rub – currently there are undoubtedly numerous clubs playing several layers beneath the elite level who, with financial backing from individuals or sponsors, pay their First XV players in one form or another, all with the ambition of progressing through the RFU pyramid league structure, almost for the sake of it. The chances of any of these clubs making to the elite level are 
infinitesimally tiny, and yet it continues.

Which raises the bigger questions of what the point of the game beneath the elite level is and what purpose it actually serves? Because if things continue the way they are, the grassroots game – at least for adult men (mini/junior rugby and the women’s game being seemingly in rude health for the most part) – appears doomed.  
There are, I'm convinced, plenty of blokes who want to play socially or at a half-decent level, who are willing to pay their membership subs and spend their money at the club bar and volunteer to help out around the club whenever needed. But these are the same blokes who see their club shipping in and paying players from outside, who are then dropped to the 2nd or the 3rd XVs, who are told that they must train twice a week to even get a game and who, if things don't change, will continue to leave the game in their droves. 

Far better in my view is for the professional game to go its merry way, properly funded by the corporate world and supported by the paying fans, leaving the RFU to focus what resources it has at community level, allowing grassroots clubs to get back to an amateur membership-based model based on community, friendship, camaraderie and, dare I say it, fun. Of course there can still be a structure of competitive rugby, serious rugby even for those that want to take it seriously, but without the twilight zone of semi-professionalsm that, as far as I can see, serves very little purpose.

Yes there will be casualties – there will be clubs who can’t or won’t adapt and will go to the wall and there will be players who fail to make the grade at the elite level and who will no longer be able to eke out an existence being paid to play rugby in the lower leagues. But surely that is how it should be - they will either play for enjoyment or disappear from the game - and to expect anything else just doesn’t make sense.

And inevitably there will be a risk that professional rugby will increasingly disappear behind a pay-TV wall, but I'd argue that this is an inherent risk anyway and I would hope that professional rugby would take heed of what has happened to cricket, for example, and think twice.

What is clear, however, is that things can’t continue as they are. 

The times they are a changin’.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Rugby rest good for Billy

There was a worrying admission by Billy Vunipola this week.

According to the Sarries and England no. 8, the current coronavirus lockdown has its advantages as it will give him time to let his broken right arm heal properly rather than see him rush back for a big game.

Vunipola broke his right arm for the third time since 2017 in Saracens' victory over Racing 92 in January but, having had further surgery on a bone which already had a titanium place inserted, he was still planning to be back in action against Leinster in the Champions Cup quarter final on 4th April. Now, he says, he can let the bone heal on its own so that it is 100%.

The obvious implication here is that, having already admitted that he came back too early following breaking the same bone in both 2017 and 2018, he was prepared to play again before his arm was 100% healed.

Which - I'd say - is a pretty poor state of affairs and a sad indictment of professional rugby's duty of care to its participants which sees the opportunity for short term success prevail over the long term health of the players.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Some brighter news...

In these difficult times any piece of good news is always welcome.

 I was therefore delighted to learn that Worcester lock, Michael Faitiafola - who suffered a serious spinal cord injury.against Saracens in January which that left him paralysed and required surgery – has now started to walk unaided.

Brilliant news - well done Michael and best of luck with your recovery.

And another uplifting tale comes from Parma where Zebre and Italy flanker Maxime Mbanda – his season having been ended by Covid-19 - has been occupied on the front line of his country’s fight against the virus by working 13 hour shifts as a volunteer ambulance driver.

Bravo Signor Mbanda.

All of which kind of puts everything else into context…

Monday, 23 March 2020

All eyes on the RFU

The decision by the RFU last Friday to cancel the English rugby season (below the Premiership) was inevitable given where we now are with the coronavirus pandemic.

Although on the face of it decisive, less helpful is the fact that the RFU appear unable to decide on what will happen next until the middle of April.

Such a delay means not only is there now confusion surrounding which teams will get promoted/relegated from their respective leagues, there is also huge uncertainly as to how grassroots and community clubs are meant to survive in the absence of any income.

While both the Welsh and Scottish Unions have pledged financial support for their clubs, the RFU have yet to commit, leaving their constituent clubs somewhat in limbo.

Furthermore, I’d say it is more or less inevitable that the Premiership season will eventually be cancelled, with millions being lost in matchday and broadcasting revenues, undoubtedly leaving some clubs on the brink.

Unless the RFU act decisively, the crisis could easily lead to the likes of CVC filling the vacuum by way of an emergency bail-out in return for a majority stake in the Premiership.

And then things really will start to get interesting…

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Does Rugby really matter?

With the advice on how we should be trying to cope with Covid-19 seemingly changing daily, with hundreds queueing to get into supermarkets whose shelves are already bare (PLEASE stop panic buying!!), with the over 70s faced with the ludicrous suggestion that they may have to self-isolate for up to four months (!!) and with huge uncertainty about how our lives will be affected over the coming days, weeks and months, I find myself facing an existential crisis of my own - i.e.: Does Rugby Matter?

I say this after today's announcement by the RFU that all rugby activity in England is suspended, which follows the curtailment of the Six Nations and the suspension of the Premiership, Pro-14, Top 14 and Super Rugby.

As things currently stand, therefore, it looks as if my son's Colts season is over. I guess it was always only a matter of time -  indeed, our Under 18s fixture last Sunday was duly called off after two of the opposition reported having high temperatures.

Of course the postponement or cancellation of sports fixtures - whether at the elite or at the local level - is small beer when set against the wider coronavirus crisis in which many may lose their lives and many more will lose their livelihoods.

In that sense rugby doesn't matter.

And yet it does.

For many, including yours truly, there is very much a rhythm to life that involves sport - in my case mainly rugby - at its very heart. Whether it's watching games on TV at the weekend, running the line at a youth game on a Sunday, catching up with the weekend's action on a Monday, coaching on a Tuesday evening or preparing for the weekend ahead, there is a familiar routine that helps structure my days and weeks and which underpins my well-being.

And when the season ends there is still Touch Rugby to play, international tours to follow and then back into pre-season for the campaign ahead.

Take all that away - and remove the opportunities to mix and to socialise and to gather and to chat - and life begins to look somewhat bleak, somewhat empty. They say you don't know what you've got until it's gone but I'm very aware of what I will be missing and I don't look forward to it one little bit.

Rugby doesn't matter but it does.

Strange days indeed.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Premiership Rugby blocks Itoje's Paris move

I read yesterday that a plan for Maro Itoje to spend next season on loan at Racing 92 and still be available to play for England has hit the buffers owing to objections from Premiership clubs.

For some time now the rule has been that you can only be picked for England if you play in England except under "exceptional circumstances" which, it appears, would now have to involve pretty much everyone else in England who plays in your position getting crocked at the same time.

I would have thought that the alternative - having one or the world's best rugby players kicking his heels in the Championship - would constitute a circumstance that was fairly exceptional  but no, apparently not according to the club owners who seem determined to continue to kick Saracens when they're down - an inevitable consequence of having club owners with obviously vested interests running the domestic professional game in England.

But my question is this - since when have the Premiership clubs been able to dictate to the RFU who can and who can't be selected to play for England?

The RFU need to grow a pair and show some leadership on this matter.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Six Nations 2020 - they think it's all over, it is now

So, the only surviving match in Round 5 of this year's Six Nations - Wales vs Scotland in Cardiff - having fallen victim to Covid-19, this weekend becomes a rugby free zone (not counting my son's Under 18s match on Sunday which, at the time of writing, still goes ahead).

The match in Cardiff was supposed to be an auspicious occasion for Welsh captain Alun Wyn Jones as he would have equalled the world caps record of 148 currently held by Richie McCaw.

That would have been quite a feat and worthy of congratulation although, for me, the Welsh skipper's reputation remains seriously tarnished in no small manner by his pathetic response to the Joe Marler incident last weekend.

Jones could have stuck up for Marler but chose not to do so. Instead, what he and the Welsh camp has done - in my opinion - is hang a player out to dry to deflect from their own inadequacies. Let's face it, despite the final score they were battered at Twickenham and they know it.

Still, the Six Nations is on indefinite leave now until lord knows when, which may well keep us healthier, but certainly buggers up my weekend's television viewing.

Friday, 13 March 2020

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Father of England Rugby Star in Immigration Hell

They may have a few other matters in their collective in-tray at the moment, but it’s safe to say that I’m not exactly impressed with the UK Government right now.

What’s provoked my ire (this time) is the news that Joe Cokanasiga’s father, Ilaitia, is apparently stuck in Fiji, prevented by immigration rules from returning to the UK to help look after his wife who awaits an operation for a brain tumour here.

This man is a retired sergeant in the British Army, who served this country for almost 14 years, serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan and yet is not allowed to reside in the UK as his permission to stay, granted while he was serving in the Armed Forces, is no longer valid.

Mr Cokansiga (who missed his son’s appearance at the World Cup as a result of the immigration rules) is currently not allowed back in to the UK after having attended his daughter’s wedding in Fiji in December.

It’s an issue that has also affected hundreds of other Commonwealth veterans who have been discharged from the Army with inadequate guidance from the MoD as to how to apply for indefinite leave to remain, who can’t afford the immigration application fees and who have since lost their jobs in the UK as they have been unable to prove that they have the right to remain.

It’s an utterly disgraceful way to treat those who have served this country with such distinction and I fully support the legal action brought by a group of such former soldiers against the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence which demands that the government acknowledge their failings and grant the veterans indefinite leave to remain for free.

And while you're sorting all that out, allow Ilaitia Cokanasiga back into the UK to help care for his sick wife.