Tuesday 21 May 2019

Ian McGeechan: Too much rugby played in England and game is getting more physical - something must give

England players gather together in a huddle after being beaten by Ireland in Twickenham last week. Photo: PA
England players gather together in a huddle after being beaten by Ireland in Twickenham last week. Photo: PA

Ian McGeechan

The hand-wringing in the wake of England's defeat by Ireland at Twickenham last weekend was inevitable. For a team such as England - with their depth of resources and talent - finishing fifth in this Six Nations was nothing short of a disaster. Yes, Eddie Jones' team won the two titles prior to that and enjoyed a long unbeaten run under the Australian. But we all know that that was despite the competition structure that exists in England rather than because of it.

The fact is, there is too much rugby played in England. We know that.

We know, too, that the game is getting more physical. Something has to give. The problems stem, of course, from the way the Premiership was set up in the first place; the chaos in those first few years after the game turned professional in 1995. Whereas in Ireland, with the union backing four provinces, or in Wales or New Zealand where the populations are similarly small, in England, right from the word go, there was separation between the clubs and the Rugby Football Union.

They were run as entirely separate businesses. England are suffering because they had interested sponsors and partners in those early years. Because the clubs were able to secure significant investment and did not need to rely on their union.

I remember those days as if they were from another age. I was at Northampton at the time, working under Keith Barwell who was a brilliant left-field thinker.

After the game went pro, the senior clubs joined together as a business via European competitions laws, with each club having two board members. Because I had experience of the coaching and management side of club and international rugby, Keith asked if I would fill the coaching brief. So, I was actually on the clubs' board for the first four years of professional rugby. It was a fascinating experience.

There were some big characters in that group. Chris Wright, at Wasps, was very good. Nigel Wray, at Saracens, who is still there, of course, and has shown unbelievable support for the game.

It was an exciting time in many ways, a vacuum to be filled. Everyone was trying to work out what the professional game should look like. When the RFU imposed that moratorium soon after the game turned professional, it became a bit like the Wild West.

I remember at one meeting John Hall talking about television rights and how we could demand this and that. I pointed out that this was rugby, not football. Keith told me the next day that John had rung him and asked: "Who's that little upstart you brought with you?"

John did pretty well, mind. During the moratorium he basically went around buying key men from Wasps - Rob Andrew, Dean Ryan, Steve Bates (who brought a young schoolboy named Jonny Wilkinson with him), as well as Pat Lam, Inga Tuigamala and a strong Scottish contingent. Newcastle won the Premiership in 1997-'98.

The point is, everyone was out to help themselves - and that was not all bad. The Premiership has grown into a hugely successful business. The most successful in the world, albeit one that lost £25 million last year.

The game in England, at club and international level, has created the opportunity for significant financial returns, particularly from the international programme.

But that power, that financial muscle, does mean that - 20 years on - there is no way a central contract system will work in England. I laugh when I read people suggesting that now. What could work, I think, is some sort of joint venture. Because it is surely in everyone's interests if the national team are strong, the club game is strong and the Premiership is not losing money.

I have written before that I would favour periods with no promotion and relegation. But I think you could go even further left field; rip it all up and start again.

Go with two conferences of seven, with the top four in each conference qualifying for a top-eight play-off. Get rid of the Anglo-Welsh Cup.

One way or another, the players have to play fewer games. I remember a study carried out by the Australian Institute of Sport which recommended that the ideal number of games for developing players was no more than 15-20 in a season. And, for elite players, no more than 34.

If you consider that 11 of those are internationals, that leaves maybe 23 games left for the clubs. Factor in the Champions Cup games and that is not a whole lot of league games.

But the RFU has the financial muscle to offer a bigger remuneration package.

And, ultimately, if England succeed, the clubs succeed. And vice versa. Is it possible that more value and success could come from less?

The bad news is that we are only a couple of years into an eight-year deal between the clubs and the union.

The good news is that the relationship between the RFU and the Premiership is the best it has ever been. And there should be the confidence to have an ongoing assessment of the shape of the best competitive domestic structure within the new parameters of the global season.

In the eight years of the agreement, the game will continue to evolve and the key assets - the players - need to be responsibly looked after.

As I say, it was atrocious for five years at the start of the professional era. But I think there is a real chance now to reach some sort of agreement; some sort of joint venture. It is very interesting that Ian Ritchie has now been appointed Premiership Rugby's new chairman.

As a former RFU chief executive he has experience of both sides, and, crucially, he is not tied to any particular club. Perhaps he is just the man to broker it.



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