Wednesday 16 October 2019

David Kelly: 'IRFU must speak out as wealth trumps welfare in elitist global league plan'

The IRFU and Irish rugby's outraged howls of anguish when the Heineken Cup was streamlined are incompatible with any complicity in this new arrangement which serves not to strengthen rugby's values, but instead maximise rugby's value. Stock picture
The IRFU and Irish rugby's outraged howls of anguish when the Heineken Cup was streamlined are incompatible with any complicity in this new arrangement which serves not to strengthen rugby's values, but instead maximise rugby's value. Stock picture
David Kelly

David Kelly

Last November in Dublin, a World Rugby (WR) working group gathered to discuss the perennial puzzle facing their sport since the Paris Accord confirmed professionalism in 1995.

Or rather the latest teaser to affect a certain cohort of those globally who play the sport. And the bottom line, as always, was the financial bottom line. Having just watched Ireland and England play "friendlies" in successive weeks against the All Blacks, with only a number one world ranking at stake, they wondered how could it be that such leading nations might have to wait another three years to face New Zealand in massive, money-making ventures?

How could the circle of meaningless matches - about half the current annual schedule - be closed to ensure a more attractive model for advertisers and broadcasters?

The answer was novel; or rather a recycled idea tarted up as a novelty: a World League - effectively a 'mini-World Cup' - to be held annually.

It's a concept with zero appeal for those with the true interests of rugby union at heart but, once there are enough zeroes on the cheque, such concerns fall by the wayside.

A 12-team "league" guarantees consistent, competitive fare but also regular income.

Each Union would bag a handsome €8.5m a year - or €100m for the 12-year cycle - and the best news was that the dirty dozen could bank on this income for at least a decade.

How come? The ruse is as simple as the idea itself for it derives from the elitist, self-serving instincts of those who propose it - ring-fence the competition for a 12-year cycle with no prospect of anything so troublesomely fair-minded as relegation/promotion.

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Which is why the USA (13th) are included ahead of Fiji (9th) - it's not about who has the most ranking points but who can generate the most bucks. Already, there is division, with spike ex-Puma scrum-half Agustin Pichot, WR vice-president, publicly stating his objections; for now, his is a lone voice amongst the self-serving elite.

The players' union, too, have railed against the proposals with prominent spokespeople such as Kieran Read, Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell citing player welfare as their chief concern, although their indecent haste in speaking out at this stage appears rather sanctimonious.

Presumably, they were also piqued to equal levels of concern when their countries consented to lavish fundraising gigs on opposite sides of the world outside current Test windows or when, in Ireland's particular case, an impoverished nation like Fiji was shunted out of the Aviva and demoted to non-Test status.

Mmm, perhaps not.

The IRFU's stance on all this - they dished out the proverbial "player welfare" line - is interesting, too. Their recurring pleas of poverty might be soothed by a guaranteed 12-year multi-million-euro wedge, even if, along with the next package of Six Nations TV rights, nearly every international match is more likely than not to disappear behind paywalls. The IRFU, as we know from their loud protestations, are not necessarily wedded to the concept of their sport being available to everyone who would like to watch it.

Call that elitism, too, perhaps.

And, even if some of their players may have to fly first-class from Buenos Aires to Johannesburg and Tokyo in successive weeks in June instead of lodging in one territory for three weeks, a handsome cheque eases the financial pain.

The IRFU and Irish rugby's outraged howls of anguish when the Heineken Cup was streamlined are incompatible with any complicity in this new arrangement which serves not to strengthen rugby's values, but instead maximise rugby's value.

Those who represent the interests of Pacific Islands rugby claim the global league plan will be a death sentence for them, a decade-long exclusion which will serve to ensure even more of their impoverished, excluded players deviate to stronger nations and wealthy private clubs.

Tier Two nations are already discriminated against at World Cups and rarely host home games but are forced to play away, with the host nations pocketing 100pc of the proceeds.

Never has rugby's elitism been so exposed as in this disgracefully discriminatory proposal. This plan will harden the divide between the haves and the have-nots. Rugby needs fewer games for the elite, not more. And rugby also needs more games for the weak, not fewer.

One hopes the IRFU will speak out. But money may talk louder.

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