Saturday 25 February 2017

Jim Glennon: Club owners' ambitions are a major threat to future of Six Nations

Jim Glennon

'The squad Joe Schmidt has named is relatively fresh-looking and well balanced.' Photo:Sportsfile
'The squad Joe Schmidt has named is relatively fresh-looking and well balanced.' Photo:Sportsfile

The Six Nations is looming, but there is a strange feeling to it this time, as we hope for an unprecedented third title in succession, against the backdrop of our provincial struggles and our now customary World Cup exit at the quarter-final stage.

The squad Joe Schmidt has named is relatively fresh-looking and well balanced. Stuart McCloskey, Ultan Dillane, CJ Stander and the returning Luke Marshall provide a sense of youth and novelty, even a touch of excitement, something Leinster supporters will attest to after their youth-inspired win against Bath last weekend.

A new captain too in Rory Best, and some changed, albeit familiar, faces in charge of the two traditional European superpowers, England and France. Eddie Jones and Guy Noves will bring a sense of stature and gravitas to their roles, and the sight of Noves prowling the touchline for France as he did for Toulouse for so many years will certainly add a sense of theatre to their games.

Noves' omission of Mathieu Bastareaud from his preliminary squad represents a statement of intent, although it must be said that, of the two newly appointed coaches, it would be a surprise if Jones didn't fare better than his French counterpart in this campaign.

The tournament is, as it always has been, the undoubted highlight of the European season. While there have been legitimate questions to answer in recent seasons around the commitment of some, particularly the French, to such a demanding international tournament mid-season - we've had a close-quarters view of that through the demands placed on Johnny Sexton during his time with Racing Metro - the vast majority of players and supporters embrace the tournament and its wonderful sense of carnival.

Sadly, however, and my negativity here gives me no pleasure whatsoever, there are legitimate questions as to just how much longer that sense of occasion will remain, as salaries offered by the major privately-owned clubs in England and France increase annually and those owners look to ensure maximum return on their substantial outlays.

We saw earlier this season the disdain with which Mourad Boudjellal and Bruce Craig reacted to the postponement of the Champions Cup game between their clubs, Toulon and Bath, as a result of the terrorist attacks on Paris and just this week, Boudjellal again commanded headlines with his application (bona fide?) to his English franchise-owning colleagues for Toulon's inclusion in their Premiership.

In the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks and the game's subsequent postponement, Craig tactlessly - to put it mildly - lamented the difficulties and fixture congestion caused by the Six Nations, and the resulting challenges in rescheduling the Champions Cup games impacted, going as far as to say "it's a bit of a disaster in that regard". You might recall that this delayed round of games was run off earlier this month with minimum fuss.

These are only two in a long series of jabs aimed at the international game and are a source of concern to rugby people everywhere. The franchisees' desire for the club game, and their own products, to be at the forefront of modern professional rugby and prioritised over the international game is very real, and must be called out for what it undoubtedly is: a major threat to the future of the Six Nations tournament and the global international game.

Even for its most casual observer and betimes bandwagon-passenger, the gradual erosion of the status of international soccer has been sad to watch. The example set by club owners in that sport is a template for those controlling club rugby in England and France, and while rugby's physical demands may make soccer-style Wednesday night Six Nations fixtures unlikely (in the short-term at least), it's not difficult to envisage further pressures being applied to the international game.

Having commented last week on the similarities of the difficulties facing the club players in domestic rugby and GAA, so too is there common ground between the sports on another topic of concern: the development of a sensibly-structured global calendar, controlled by the national unions and World Rugby, is vital to secure the sustainable future of international rugby, and the wider sport in general.

While the World Rugby's regulations clearly compel franchise owners to release players for international duty during specified windows in the current calendar, the increasingly lucrative contracts on offer, as in soccer, make representing one's country a major risk to an international player's livelihood, for a range of reasons. Injury, the prospect of damaging the employer/employee relationship, or of weakening one's negotiating position when contracts come up for renewal are all factors playing on the minds of international players, and those aspiring to that level, in both sports. Rugby, by the week, is becoming ever more a business and players can't be blamed for optimising their earning potential during the unpredictably short time-period in which they are physically capable of performing at professional level.

The unions, individually and as a collective, need to act, and quickly too. In Europe, the dominant markets of England and France are precisely the countries where the governing bodies have timidly conceded large chunks of control, and there will be global ramifications if the onward march of the 'private sector' is allowed to continue unabated.

Sadly, as we look forward to the annual carnival, there's little to inspire confidence that control of our sport can be wrested back from those outside forces who play a very different 'game', and do so worryingly well; their 'game' is in fundamental conflict with ours, and all that has been cherished and held dear by and for generations.

Let's enjoy what we have, while we have it!

Sunday Indo Sport

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