It’s often said that statistics can be misleading.
World Rugby recently trumpeted 800m ‘followers’ globally. So roughly one in nine people walking the planet, then? Spiffing.
Neilsen, the respected data analytics gatherer, estimated there were 21.2m people interested in rugby in the UK. That’s one in three with a penchant for the game. High-fives all round.
The figures pertaining to rugby’s rude financial health are equally mind-boggling in their scale.
Mark McCafferty, the Premiership CEO, boldly predicted the league could be worth in excess of £1bn by 2025, while the Top 14 signed the largest TV deal the sport has ever seen in 2016, worth a giddy €338m.
And yet, scratch below the headline figures and you’ll find disquiet. Twenty-three years after the sport went professional, the game that began 195 years ago is at a crossroads. All is not tickety-boo.
Want an example? When Australia held out for a morale-boosting 23-18 victory over South Africa in Brisbane, 27,849 fans were in the rafters. That same fixture pulled in 47,481 spectators in 2009. Both double World Cup winners, the Wallabies against the Springboks should be among the biggest draws on rugby’s scorecard. Not any more.
Discussing rugby’s teething pains on a regular basis, a friend who cares deeply quipped that “rugby needs blowing up again and starting from scratch’.
Gallows humour, indeed, but there’s uncertainty as to whether rugby can wrestle itself back from the precipice, or let destructive avarice prevail?
Agustin Pichot, as sharp a shooter as there is in rugby administration, said that he is concerned for the health of the international game, particularly in light of the perceived financial might of the French and English leagues, who are hurriedly stockpiling armaments.
Indeed, just this week Premiership Rugby intimated they were plumping the cushions for fresh investment having turned down a £275m offer that would have guaranteed each club a cool £17m. Clubs like Worcester, whose player wages outstrip club revenue, are in dire need of help. The last vestiges of amateurism still reside in boardrooms, yet as wages inflate, balance sheets have CEOs reaching for the smelling salts. The clock is ticking.
Even the RFU, for so long viewed as the cash cow of the world game, is having to deny head coach Eddie Jones is having to dip into his pocket to pay ad-hoc consultants their lucre as he plots World Cup nirvana. Send for the lifeboats.
The plucky Celts, for their part, are slugging wildly just to keep up, with the Pro14 hanging onto the coat tails of their English and French counterparts, even giving shelter to South African franchises deprived of a home in a struggling Super Rugby competition.
The lure of a Test shirt is still their trump card of keeping star names playing in the country, but for how long?
When the rugby ‘family’ convene later this year to try to hammer out the blueprint for the next decade of professional rugby, conviction, magnanimity and vision are needed in abundance. The alternative? It doesn’t bear thinking about.