Wednesday, 12 December 2018

HMRC to probe English Rugby

The only surprise at the news that HM Revenue and Customs is launching an investigation into the tax affairs of the grassroots game in England is that it has taken this long.

HMRC has apparently identified clubs who “may not be applying the PAYE regulations correctly” – in other words those regularly who pay ‘cash in hand’ off the books.

Apparently initially the investigation will involve National League One and Two clubs but may be expanded in future to lower echelons of the English club game.

Certainly the news will be causing a few palpitations amongst club treasurers up and down the country, discreet cash payments to players to cover “expenses” certainly having been a staple part of the grassroots game even before the advent of professionalism in 1995...

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Time for Premiership Rugby to get radical?

I’m beginning to like Nigel Melville as acting CEO at the RFU.

Ok, so potentially he has a £4.7 million lawsuit hanging over him in the US following his stint as Chief Executive of USA Rugby but, hey, nobody’s perfect.

What I like about Melville as a Chief Executive is (a) that he knows his rugby, (b) that he is willing to think outside the box and (c) that he appears to agree with me. 😆

For some time I’ve been banging on about how 2 fully professional leagues of 12 teams in England is simply unsustainable financially.

I’ve even suggested that 16 clubs is probably the maximum number of sustainable professional rugby clubs in England. 

Lo and behold, when commenting on the possible ring-fencing of the Premiership, Melville has mooted the idea of expanding the Premiership to 16 clubs split into a two-league conference system with play offs to decide the champions.

The devil, obviously, will be in the detail, and the clubs may need to make some short term sacrifices (in terms of revenues being split 16 ways) for longer term gains, but I do like the fact that Melville is prepared to think radically to try to solve this thorniest of issues.

Of course how such radicalism will go down in the corridors of power in TW1 remains to be seen...

Friday, 7 December 2018

Mental health ticking time bomb for rugby

There’s a report in today’s Telegraph that new figures, compiled by the Rugby Players’ Association, show that 62% of retired professional rugby players have suffered mental health problems - ranging from panic attacks to suicidal thoughts - since retiring from the game.

The PRA research is based on approximately 200 retired professional players and reveals that former rugby players are approximately three times more likely than a member of the general public to suffer illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

It’s a truly shocking stat and I can only hope that it serves as a wake up call to the clubs and the powers that be to ensure that player welfare – both physical and mental – is given the attention it deserves…

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Premiership Rugby relegation question a red herring?

With only 4 points currently separating the bottom seven teams in the Premiership and a realistic prospect of one of the league's traditional big hitters being relegated at the end of the season, talk of ending relegation has once more raised its head.

I admit I can see both sides to the argument.

On the one hand, ending relegation and ring-fencing the Premiership would allow clubs to take more risks, promote younger English players rather than import from abroad, ease the workload on senior players, and plan commercially for the mid to long term.

On the other hand, preventing promotion from the Championship could serve only to stifle ambition and lead to the stagnation of rugby in the second tier - after all, without the principle of promotion and relegation, Exeter's remarkable journey to the upper echelons of English rugby would not have been possible.

I do not know what the answer is, but what I do know - and I've banged on about it before - is that there simply isn't enough money in club rugby in England to sustain 2 fully professional leagues of 12 teams.

The starting point of any discussion should therefore be the question of how many professional clubs can the game in England realistically sustain...?

Monday, 3 December 2018

Barbarians at the (exit) gate?

I must admit to remaining ambivalent about the Barbarians' place in today's rugby calendar.

Don't get me wrong, I love the concept of top players from different countries coming together to socialise, share experiences and play off-the-cuff rugby - it's very much in the true corinthian spirit of the game, harking back to the old amateur ethos with which I grew up.

However, watching a team of mostly South Africans, with a few others from the Southern Hemisphere thrown in to make up the numbers, take on what was almost an Argentinian development team, meant that there was very little to get really excited about in what was an error-ridden game, despite the dramatic conclusion.

The fact that the Twickenham crowd only numbered something in the region of 31,000 also suggests that this was a fixture that failed to capture the public's imagination.

I do hope that the BaaBaas concept can survive in an increasingly congested international professional rugby calendar, but fixtures like this really do it no favours at all.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Truth hurts for the RFU

Ah, you’ve just got to love the RFU.

No, you really do – as former CEO Francis Baron and former chairman Graeme Cattermole have just found out, having been stripped of their complimentary tickets and hospitality for international matches at Twickenham for showing “a lack of respect”.

The pair had the temerity to publicly claim that RFU finances were a mess, claims which were then largely substantiated earlier this week when the RFU posted its accounts for the year ending 30 June 2018 which showed income down by £12.5 million and an operating loss of £30.9 million.

The truth? The RFU can’t handle the truth!

All hail the 57 old farts!

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Andy Farrell - England's loss, Ireland's gain?

There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst English rugby pundits at the news that Andy Farrell is to replace Joe Schmidt as Ireland's head coach after the World Cup in Japan next year.

Farrell, you will recall, was jettisoned by England following the 2015 World Cup debacle (alongside head coach Stuart Lancaster, amongst others) and the news that he will now take the helm in Ireland means that Sir Clive Woodward, for one, is (somewhat melodramatically) "almost filled with despair". 

Woodward bemoans English rugby's loss of "an outstanding individual...a coach of massive potential" and, while I don't necessarily disagree with such sentiments, what is being forgotten here is that Andy Farrell being on the England coaching staff previously caused all sorts of issues when it came to England selection and the merits or otherwise of his son, Owen.

Is Woodward honestly saying that England should seriously be considering appointing a head coach whose son is the fly half and captain? This isn't the local club Under 16s. 

I'm sure Farrell Snr will prove to be a more than decent international head coach and who knows, in a few years, once young Owen has hung up his England boots, we may still see a Farrell in charge of England. The question, perhaps, is which Farrell will it be? Or - and this is not beyond the realms of possibility - will it be both of them?

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

November Rugby Internationals 2018 - the State of the (Home) Nations

My utterly subjective and not-at-all one-eyed assessment of where each of the nations of the British Isles stand following the Autumn internationals...

1st - Ireland

To use a well worn cliché, Irish eyes are smiling. They may not be ranked world number one yet, but their utterly relentless display against the All Blacks earned them the tag of the world's best team on current form, since when they've bagged the World Rugby Team of the Year award to go alongside Coach of the Year (Joe Schmidt) and Player of the Year (Johnny Sexton).

Three questions:

- How will they deal with the burden of being favourites going into every game between now and Japan?
- Can they maintain form for the next 11months?
- How disruptive will Joe Schmidt's decision to step down after the World Cup be?

2nd - Wales

Can't say that Wales were massively inspiring this November, but they are discovering the art of winning ugly, something that:

- has eluded them in previous autumns and
- should serve them well in the months ahead.

Talk of Wales as World Cup contenders is, however, fanciful.

= 3rd England

Given how poor 2018 had been, Eddie Jones will be pleased with the improvements England made this November, particularly at the scrum, the breakdown and in defence. If (and it's a big IF):

- they can keep key players largely injury free and
- Eddie gets selection right (not a given, by any means)

then England can at least look forward to emerging from their pool at the World Cup.😆

= 3rd Scotland

Scotland remain an enigma - oscillating between brilliance and mediocrity, often in the same game. A 50% return this November reflects this lack of consistency, although the comprehensive victory over Fiji now looks all the more impressive when set aside the magnificent Fijian win in Paris.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Turmoil in TW1

Steve Brown's resignation as Chief Executive of the RFU is a strange one.

Was it, as is claimed, simply a case of him growing weary of rugby politics and the constant criticism and sniping from the sidelines from the likes of former CEO Francis Baron?

Or is it more to do with the fact that the RFU, despite turning a huge profit on the 2015 World Cup, somehow now appear to be in a deep financial hole, a massive overspend on the Twickenham East Stand redevelopment leading to savage cost-cutting, particularly to grassroots funding, and 60+ compulsory redundancies?

In other words, did he jump or was he pushed?

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Ireland now unofficially world's best rugby team

If the World Cup was being played this month Ireland would win it, of that I have no doubt.

They may not be officially the world's number one team, but I think we all know the score.

I suppose the question, after their near perfect performance against the All Blacks on Saturday, is whether it can ever get better than this for the Irish?

The challenge for Joe Schmidt's men will be to sustain form through the Six Nations and on to Japan - with every other team trying to knock them off their perch - and to improve further.

One thing that is certain is that the All Blacks will be brooding about this defeat for some time and will undoubtedly come back all guns blazing.