As we approach the culmination of the Six Nations, there was a little quip from Will Carling this week about the reshaping of the Calcutta Cup. There were smiles and a deep sense of nostalgia about the night John Jeffrey and Dean Richards hoofed the prized silverware down Princes Street 31 years ago after a drunken night.
The Calcutta Cup was first played for in 1879 and gives an indication of the Corinthian values that underpinned the game before August 1995, when Vernon Pugh declared rugby professional.
In many ways the game is still defined by its amateur values, yet the pace with which it is being governed financially is increasingly at odds with the ideals of yesteryear.
The elite game is in a pickle. Only last week, two thirds of the Wales squad went into the fixture with Scotland bruised by domestic fallout that threatened their very livelihoods. In TW2, the RFU’s incoming chief executive, Bill Sweeney, will have to deal with the fallout of the world’s richest union over-stretching itself financially to the point they may have to ditch their highly successful Sevens team, and that’s just scratching the surface.
These obstacles, however, pale into insignificance compared to the global bunfight unfolding among the game’s administrators struggling to find common ground in plotting a sustainable future.
Rugby’s complex jigsaw, with players as pawns, is about to be reconfigured. This week it was the Six Nations turn to flex its financial muscles after CVC, the private equity heavyweights, were said to have tabled a £500m offer for a 30 per cent stake in the commercial rights of the Six Nations, more than doubling the offer already accepted by Premiership Rugby for its clubs who were bailing out to the tune of nearly £30m-a-year.
This eye-watering sum was no ‘done deal’ – with rumours of Amazon Prime waiting in the wings – but it would be enough to enter today’s meeting in Dublin with a swagger, all while World Rugby tries to convince stakeholders of the merits of the equally shiny Nations Championship. Nostrils flared, looking in from the outside, a clearly miffed Premiership Rugby and LNR stew, having voiced their dissatisfaction at an encroachment onto their turf.
Suffice to say, these hefty sums and how to fairly disperse them are fundamental to rugby’s dysfunction. If Six Nations accept CVC’s offer, they will be cutting the rope on the Southern Hemisphere unions who are desperate for an injection of hard cash. They are banking on the Nations Championship, with its meritocratic relegation and promotion and pooling of broadcasting rights to maximise revenue and there have been murmurings of Sanzaar nations boycotting European tours if they are shipwrecked down South while their players board life-rafts set for the riches of the North.
It’s all rather unsettling and underlines rugby’s dependence on private investment to keep it afloat.
Much like Brexit, no one knows what’s coming next, but these are high stakes. Whatever decisions are made, rugby’s course has irrevocably changed. Only time will tell if it’s for the better.