“It’s the world in union, the world as one, as we climb to reach our destiny, a new age has begun.”
The symbolic, soothing words of rugby’s anthem, yet as we bask in the middle of rugby’s crown jewel, the Six Nations, it couldn’t be further from the truth with news of a proposed ‘World League’ being hastily ratified and seemingly ‘open for business’ next year.
In it, 12 teams and a 12-year lockdown are in the pipeline, with coincidentally the (cash-rich) 13th placed USA in the world rankings seemingly elbowing 12th placed Georgia aside to be included in the gold-plated cabal. We’re told unions would pocket £7m-a-season from an, as yet, unnamed partner. As a furore ensued, under-fire World Rugby hurriedly, and vehemently refuted these claims, speaking of inaccuracies and claiming talks are ongoing, yet it would take a great leap of faith to take as verbatim the administrator’s statement that player welfare and not financial gain was not a determining factor in their ongoing dialogue.
As this unedifying debacle plays out in public, it pays to look through a wider lens at the power plays at the heart of this increasingly desperate arms race. Club rugby in France and England is in rude health. Premiership Rugby, emboldened by £230m hard cash from private equity company CVC and a lucrative six-year £152m deal with BT Sport, routinely vies with the Top 14, with its £83m-a-season Canal+ deal, to secure the greatest talent. Charles Piutau, Aaron Cruden, Faf de Klerk, Finn Russell, Rhys Webb and Sean O’Brien have all chosen to play outside their own nations for significantly enhanced pay-packets, and post World Cup more star names will be added.
The other unions fear being marginalised. They invest significant funds – raised by high-profile Tests – into provinces, regions and franchises to prop up leagues and hope the player drain will remain a trickle rather than a torrent. To keep pace, they believe more ‘meaningful’ Tests will garner new audiences and investment. Where this leaves the common rugby fan is in a state of befuddlement, but judging from public sentiment, pretty much everyone is in agreement that further stifling the Pacific Islands’ ambition to feast at rugby’s cavernous trough is unjust and immoral, especially given the natural riches they provide.
For Johnny Sexton, Owen Farrell and Kieran Read to go on record and state their dissatisfaction with the way the international game is heading is a shot across the bows for all those concerned in mapping out rugby’s future.
For all the missives about ‘player welfare’, the old adage, ‘actions speak louder than words’ is prescient. Another warrior of the modern age, Sam Warburton – someone forced to retire at the age of 28 due to the consistent wear and tear on his body – last night advised a cap of 25 games a season for the game’s most in-demand commodities, the players.
How rugby’s most cerebral minds orchestrate that will go a long way to framing how they are viewed in the years to come.