Ian McGeechan: 'English rugby needs to look at Irish model if their clubs are to thrive'
After Gloucester's battering by Munster at Kingsholm on Friday night, Exeter find themselves back in the last-chance saloon today. The Chiefs must win at home to Castres if they are to stand any chance of qualifying for the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup. Even then they would need to win again at Munster next weekend to go through - a tall order.
The fact Exeter are even in contention is pretty remarkable when you consider their form in Europe this term.
With one win and a draw from their four games thus far, it is fair to say Rob Baxter's team have not looked all that convincing. Sadly, that seems to be something we are saying far too often where Exeter and Europe are concerned, which is a shame when you consider what a superb job Baxter has done down there.
The Chiefs are still an exceptional team, don't get me wrong. Witness their demolition job on Saracens a couple of weeks ago. Their weakness is that while their game is consistent, it is also readable, and the best teams will challenge their processes. When it comes to Europe they seem to lack a Plan B for when their Plan A (multi-phase play rugby in their opponents' 22) doesn't come off.
The stats don't lie. Exeter have now made Europe's top-tier competition five times since being promoted into the English Premiership in 2010 but only once have they made it out of their pool and they have never won a knock-out match. As one of the top two clubs in England, that suggests to me that English rugby needs a shake-up. It needs to introduce changes which in my opinion would benefit the game at all levels.
These are hugely important times for the game in England. The recent injection of cash from CVC Capital Partners has provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink and reshape the game.
The key is to use this opportunity wisely - to benefit every level of the game from club rugby right through to international rugby.
So how to do it? Well, you don't need to look far. It has become increasingly apparent, over the past 18 months, that the Irish system is working better than the English system, off a smaller budget and with a smaller playing pool. Their players are better rested, and consequently they are better able to perform at the key moments of the season.
It is a no-brainer, therefore, that any new format would bring a reduction in the number of games played. That, fundamentally, is the biggest problem in England. The number of games they are playing.
Yes, Premiership Rugby is a business and yes clubs want as many bums on seats as possible as often as possible. But, in the same breath, there has to be a duty of care to the players. The recent Professional Rugby Injury Surveillance Project report makes it abundantly clear that the current pathway we are on is unsustainable.
The problem, historically anyway, is that the major stakeholders in England - Premiership Rugby Limited, the Rugby Football Union (RFU), the Championship etc - have not always been on the same page. Which makes it hard to agree on anything.
In Ireland, the IRFU controls not only the provinces but the international game. That means they can move players such as Joey Carbery from Leinster to Munster if he's not getting as much game time as they would like. We saw the benefits of that on Friday night. Carbery was sensational.
What needs to be stressed is that if we get it right for the core assets - the players - then the game benefits at every level, right through to international.
Playing fewer games does not need to mean a less exciting competition structure. On the contrary, it would hopefully mean the top players can play more rather than less often, and in all the key games. As Steve Brown, the recently departed RFU chief executive, said: "Less can mean more".
Why not adopt a Pro14 conference-style format? Say, for instance, you have 14 fully professional clubs. You could have two conferences of seven teams. Each club plays the other six home and away. That is 12 games. You then have play-offs at the business end of the season. The play-off system can be manipulated to create the desired number of games.
As for ring-fencing, it's a thorny debate but I'm not averse to it if it would help to encourage better rugby, and greater stability - both from a business and a player perspective.
It need not be as controversial as all that. Some Championship clubs want the opportunity to come up, others don't. The important thing is that the RFU does not cut adrift clubs who have the capability - and the desire - to do so. It must also be mindful of its responsibility to grow the game in all regions of the country, which means having top level teams in all regions if possible. Ring-fencing for a specified period - four years, say - would be both reasonable and logical; allowing those clubs aspiring to go up time to get their houses in order, and giving Premiership clubs the safety net to grow their businesses and manage their players' workload in a more enlightened way.
The players must be at the heart of this. They need to be playing fewer, but higher quality games. You should not have to have vast squads. In fact, ideally you want smaller squads so they key players all get to play in the key games.
Of course, there needs to be cover during the international windows, but those players stepping in should be the outstanding 20-23-year-olds being produced by a jointly funded and jointly run Academy and Player Development Pathway system. Look at Ireland, their current success is based on the blooding of their young talent - James Ryan, Jordan Larmour, Dan Leavy, Jacob Stockdale et al - over two seasons, which leads not just to provincial, but international standards.
English rugby could do so much better but the stakeholders need to work together for the greater good. It must have the collective confidence to create a successful business on and off the field based on a more realistic number of games.
In the end, successfully selling the game to a global audience will be based on quality rather than quantity.