Wednesday 20 February 2019

Comment: Rugby in danger of eating itself unless leaders emerge and heed Pichot's dire warnings


Agustin Pichot. Photo: Getty Images
Agustin Pichot. Photo: Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Taken as straws in the wind, this week's headlines might not add up to much. Put all of those straws together and the hay bale transforms into something approaching a ticking time-bomb.

When a figure as prominent as Agustin Pichot comes out as strongly as he did on Wednesday, then everyone in the game should take note.

The former Argentina international, turned World Rugby vice-chairman, said he did not want to be "an accomplice to rugby's ruin" as he outlined his fears for the future of the sport.

On Saturday, we in Ireland were treated to the grim spectre of concussion, bravely laid bare by Dominic Ryan.

Over the weekend, the gulf in class between New Zealand and the rest of the Rugby Championship was laid bare.

On Tuesday, former All Black Lima Sopoaga explained that the famous jersey is no longer enough to keep players from taking the riches on offer in Europe, an interview that prompted Steve Hansen to reiterate his calls for state support in keeping the best players in New Zealand.

Across the Irish Sea, the English Premiership turned down €308m from a private equity firm for control of the league, while a number of kites were flown in a 'Guardian' article that included the idea of cutting the Heineken Champions Cup from 20 to 16 teams as well as a bizarre Ryder Cup-style North v South club competition.

Then, one of the most powerful men in the sport stepped in with a scathing assessment of where it's at ahead of a key meeting of World Rugby next week in Australia.

"If you ask me as a businessman, the business side of it is not working," Pichot said.

"If you ask me as to the playing side, it's not working. The bottom lines are not there. We changed the calendar. We thought we had a fix. We are reviewing that."

The calendar is the key battleground between clubs and unions and the agreement struck in January 2017 appears to be on life-support.

It is not the only battleground, the European club game is significantly weakening the Southern Hemisphere game and one only has to look at the Guinness PRO14 table to see the South African sides languishing after two games.

The Cheetahs, so impressive last season, lost their coach and all of their best players to Europe.

The situation in South Africa is desperate and they are increasingly looking to the European game for salvation.

The PRO14 offers a route to the Champions Cup and potentially the Six Nations, but the broadcasting revenue would plummet for their Rugby Championship bedfellows if they headed north.

Despite a superbly successful campaign that leaves the national team second in the world, Ireland is not immune from the blow-back.

The IRFU is all-in on the international game, which finances the rest of the sport from the provinces down. A reduced Champions Cup would not suit the Irish game, while the inevitable threats to the Six Nations and the Test windows are a worry.

After next year's World Cup, the game enters a new phase and right now the future is up for grabs.

On the pitch, the game is at war with itself as it tries to eradicate foul play and cut down on concussion with an ever-complex law-book.

Off it, the boardroom battles are just heating up as the struggle for control of the sport's future direction goes on.

Pichot's warning should be a clarion call for those who want to sustain the success of a sport that is still young in professional terms and in danger of eating itself unless leadership is shown.

Irish Independent

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