Monday 23 September 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'The more things change, the more they stay same'

Mark McCafferty. Photo: Getty Images
Mark McCafferty. Photo: Getty Images
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In the space of three days this month we had as many news stories reinforcing some fundamentals about our game. First, agreement was reached in principle for the buy-in to England's Premiership by CVC Capital Partners, a private equity firm. Second, Bernard Jackman got the heave-ho from the Dragons. And third, French rugby was hit with its second death of a young player this season. All unrelated, each a reminder of the way rugby staggers along from one collision to the next.

The Premiership story first surfaced in September but English clubs are now salivating over the proximity of the cash: €19.9m each. Given that aside from Exeter they all recorded losses in 2017, you can imagine the Christmas they've been having across the water.

Never mind the unbridled lunacy that is Brexit, luxuriate in the gift-wrapped box coming from CVC.

You may have read a line from Premier Rugby's Mark McCafferty that CVC, who formerly controlled Formula 1, will be looking after the Premiership's commercial plans. We're still waiting for McCafferty's promises of riches for EPCR once ERC was put to the sword.

Whatever, while the windfall is good news for the clubs it doesn't reflect any behavioural change. So you'd imagine that clubs who routinely lost money season on season will continue to inflate the wage market, and continue to lose money. Moreover, CVC, who initially wanted a 50 per cent stake in the Premiership, will be getting 35 per cent of the pie. That means a hefty upswing in commercial turnover will be required to satisfy all parties. Not exactly a gimme.

The day after that story appeared, Dragons confirmed they would be parting company with Jackman. It was coming from a long way out, and once the results didn't pick up despite getting some decent horseflesh into the stable over the summer, the natives grew increasingly restless. Jackman's demise sparked a fresh round of introspection in Wales where, unlike here, the transfer from clubs to regions/provinces never quite hit the spot.

A Welsh friend never tires of telling us the yarn about Neath folk clambering up the highest peak in the district to view better the German bombing of Swansea in WW2. If there was little love for the union of Ospreys then there was less in Gwent for the birth of the Dragons.

Jackman is a quality coach with well-developed political smarts so he knew the lie of the land before he took the boat to Holyhead.

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His successor will inherit a Welsh version of Connacht from the days when they were officially Ireland's second-class citizens. Dragons, owned by the Welsh Rugby Union, are strapped for cash. As are the WRU themselves. Head office owns 50 per cent of the other three regions and are looking for closer control. Which of course costs money.

Without investment the regions can't be competitive and a Guinness Pro14, already saddled with South Africans who have to be carried along, suffers as a result. That goes a bit deeper than Bernard Jackman's win/loss ratio.

The day after his sacking came the awful news from France that Stade Francais academy player Nicolas Chauvin had died following a broken neck sustained on the rugby field. Naturally enough, that tragedy kicked off fresh introspection on the safety of rugby - a subject never too far off anyone's agenda.

In this case, however, the debate lurched towards the corner marked BFS (Bigger, Faster, Stronger), which has been the journey of every professional player because the rewards are obvious in a contact sport of being able to physically dominate your opponents. The irony is that in the drive to get health and safety into the mix lots of folks have lost sight of the terrifying fact that rugby was a potentially fatal pastime long before its athletes became obsessed with BFS.

We used to associate catastrophic injury primarily with the scrum - specifically the collapsed scrum. Positive law changes have vastly improved that aspect of the game. Scrums may be tedious and time-consuming, and frequently ugly, but mostly they are safe.

The tackle, which is where Nicolas Chauvin was hurt, is not. The BFS element has increased that danger and driven up figures on concussion, which has become the scourge of the modern game. But regardless of the physical conditioning of the tackler, or the tackled player, trying to stop a moving target is a risky business.

Yet it is one whose gladiatorial element still has huge appeal to the commercial world. This will continue until the game becomes too ugly for children to play and investors to back.

When the thrill of a physical contest is overtaken by the fear of another life-changing, or life-ending, injury, rugby as we know it will be no more.

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