Neil Francis: Protect this golden goose
Club row must not be allowed to do further harm to Six Nations, writes Neil Francis
On the day that I officially declare a fatwa on Mark McCafferty, on the eve of the Six Nations, I can look back at the Machiavellian row between the European partners and, far from being concerned about the future of the Heineken Cup, can glance askew at the collateral damage from the row and realise that the principal victim of that unholy mess is the Six Nations Championship.
When the jigsaw is put back together, and it most assuredly will be done (I am confident that nearly everything will be smoothed out by the end of April), everyone will declare a victory and everyone will show cause for aggrievement but will get on with it. The new and 'improved' competition will move on and gather pace and be the competition we want it to be – to the detriment of the Six Nations.
The 12 owners of the PRL clubs and their 14 counterparts in the LNR are no patriots. Self-interest and profit are their goals. Buying players to play for their vested interests does not mean that they are happy that these players are called upon to leave their clubs and play for their country.
In France, the ascendancy of the Top 14 and its prominence in Europe has had a hugely detrimental effect on their national team. It is not a coincidence that France are a crap side at this moment in time. Yes, it is true that they have the worst coach in the championship – it was interesting that Pascal Pape beat the same drum as his coach about the way the Top 14 is going. An exhaustive fixture list, too many foreign players and a rolling injury list from the fatigued elite.
The owners kind of went off the high board without checking the level of water in the pool and they have a runaway horse now that neither the unions nor the IRB can control.
The IRB remind me of one of those giant jellyfish that just drifts along in the sea and if something happens to get caught in his tentacles, well, then maybe they might do something with it. Or maybe not. You get the impression that those people talk back to their rice krispies. A treacle-like flow of whimsy and apathy issues from their offices. Rather than confront the owners they sat back and let the situation develop. They send out missives about goggles for short-sighted players, they informed us about 'impact beyond 2015' – a unity project set to develop the powerhouses of European rugby like Serbia, Belgium and Switzerland. Women's sevens rugby was also high on their list of priorities.
Meanwhile, the foundation stones of the game in the northern hemisphere were crumbling. The Italians and the Scots were going to be disenfranchised. The idiot owners were setting up an Anglo-French competition, then an Anglo-South African competition and then they were going to sit in splendid isolation and play against nobody!
Finally, an Anglo-Welsh league was mooted. The French changed with the wind – at all stages it was going to be resolved, but nobody really recognised what a calamitous effect it was having and will have into the future.
They have seized the initiative and the club game is where the action is. The decline will be in incremental stages and will affect the weakest first.
Scotland and Italy will become appreciably weaker – their club game shot, the quality of their internationals waning and the gates will fall. From next year there will only be one Italian and one Scottish side in the Heineken. The others – Edinburgh and Zebre – will be playing against Portuguese and Spanish sides in the Amlin. This year you will have poor-quality sides from Italy, Scotland and France. Next year they will be a notch further down the ladder.
At no stage was the European spat about league meritocracy and a 20-team championship, or a renegotiated division of the spoils. It was a naked grab at seizing control of European rugby. Can you accuse the IRB of being asleep at the wheel? To my mind they weren't even in the car. They realised too late what was afoot and got involved, but should have crushed this mini-insurgency in its embryonic stages.
The IRB are now fighting a rear-guard action, one which they will win but with scorched earth as their prize. In essence, the internationals really are the golden goose of the game. Revenues from the international matches dwarf that of the Heineken at this moment in time. The RFU, for example, subvents their haemorrhaging clubs £4 million each year to keep them alive. They would be unable to make this contribution if it were not for international rugby fixtures. The international game is where it is at monetarily at the moment and that game and all its attendant structures should be ring-fenced and protected.
The IRB, instead of fighting a retrospective fight against their clubs, should have been proactive and vigorously so in promoting the Six Nations and ensuring that popular appeal doesn't fall away any further than it has already.
The international game has become difficult to watch. Piped rock music, fireworks and dancing girls don't distract from the fact that 90 per cent of the games are Mull of Kintyre dull.
Appalling refereeing, time wastage at scrum time, TMOs, kick-chase, cynicism at the breakdown and laws which favour the defender – very hard to garner any stirring or radical initiatives from jellyfish to try and at least freshen up the game, give incentive to attack and be creative.
Despite the result, I feel I will be living off that All Blacks game for a long time before we approach something of that quality. We won't see its like in the Six Nations
It should be noted that Nigel Owens only awarded 12 penalties in that game, six each, and then 13 in the Castres v Leinster game (eight-five). Mr Owens spent a lot of the match trying to talk players out of doing something stupid, it is no coincidence that he is involved in most of the better games. He too gets frustrated when the games which he is refereeing turn into impenetrable arm wrestles filled with illegalities.
Fortunately for Ireland, they have some half-decent referees this season – Craig Joubert (Scotland/England), Wayne Barnes (Wales) and Owens for Italy and, oh well, four out of five ain't bad, Steve Walsh for the French game.
Take a mental note: if you are more interested in whether Leinster, Munster or Ulster will progress in the quarter-finals of the Heineken, well then we are on the way already.