The last few days in English rugby have felt like one of those fantasy adventure books in the 1980s, where a typical instruction might read: ‘Do you choose to follow the ethereal maiden trailing gold coins behind her? Turn to page 83. Or do you accept the invitation of the drunken troll to eat lard? Turn to page 21.’
The feeling is that we have turned to the page that reads: ‘Congratulations! You have chosen wisely.’ By turning down the multi-million-pound bid by private equity firm CVC Capital Partners to do to the Premiership what it did to Formula One, those other multi-millionaires who currently own elite club rugby in England have retained their mandate to stick with the multi-million-pound-leaking devil we know. The temptation to have all debts wiped out has been resisted in favour of keeping the beast under control.
We will never know what might have transpired on page 83, but let’s not imagine this is the only chance the Premiership will have to follow big finance into who knows what new pastures, what new dangers. For an entity losing around £30m a year, Premier Rugby remains remarkably cool, as if these experienced businessmen who have made so much money see value in their project, know that alternative finance is on the way. They are probably right.
Which spells trouble for the rest of the world. On the very same day the owners chose so wisely, Lima Sopoaga, the latest knight of the Order of the All Black to seek his fortune up here, predicted he would be far from the last. In a boringly pragmatic assessment, he praised the mystical experience of wearing the black jersey as ‘surreal’ but rued that ‘further down the track those things don’t pay for a roof over your head’.
One needs to acknowledge he might be ‘filthy’ he isn’t first choice for the All Blacks, that playing for the All Blacks does pay quite well, that Beauden Barrett, his rival No10, is unlikely to be giving up his black jersey just yet, but there is more than a ring of truth to what he says. As Sport500 has long predicted, that last triumph of chivalric loyalty to the jersey over the temptation of gold elsewhere will not be maintained for ever.
The defections to the money of the north have more or less cleared New Zealand’s bench. We still await that of a bona fide first-choice All Black (although some might argue Charles Piutau was already that), but it is coming. These multimillionaire owners are not going to settle for the status quo. The riches they dangle are already enough to entice the Piutaus and Sopoagas into what was once unthinkable for a New Zealander. If and when they secure leverage to the next level of finance, even the citadel of the New Zealand first XV will surely be breached.
The club game will have turned itself into that uncontrollable monster on the last page it’s almost impossible to defeat.
Michael Aylwin’s novel about the future of sport, Ivon, is out now