Sport Rugby

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Jim Glennon: We must not let rapacious owners chip away at rugby's values

'Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal has spoken about the international game with apparent resentment' Photo:Sportsfile
'Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal has spoken about the international game with apparent resentment' Photo:Sportsfile

Jim Glennon

An article in The Independent caught my eye recently. Written by Michael Calvin and headlined 'Manchester United not the club they once were - but they are not alone in that' was an excellent articulation of what many of us feel about the direction of professional sport.

"There used to be a football club on Sir Matt Busby Way, before Old Trafford became a branch office for a global corporation," Calvin began. "The sculptured shrines to legendary figures are in danger of becoming monuments to a lost culture, as mysterious as Easter Island statues.

"United was once run by men who understood football, first and foremost. They felt the hand of history on their shoulder. Their successors service the structured debts of rapacious absentee owners by harvesting the profits of that history."

If soccer's circumstances are very different, with revenues, salaries, crowds, and public and media interest inflated beyond belief at the top level, there are nonetheless parallels with the manner in which professional rugby, particularly in Europe, is developing. With professionalism still in its relative infancy, the likelihood is that the pace and scale of change will increase dramatically over the coming decade.

Soccer is a global entertainment product and European club rugby is small fry by comparison. Many of the soccer club owners are absentees, but the major changes seen in club rugby in recent seasons have been driven by activist owners on the ground, hands-on and, in some cases, very much front and centre.

Throughout the 1980s and '90s, the predominant rivalry in English rugby was between Leicester and Bath, with the pair seemingly locked together in a permanent head-to-head for all the major trophies - Leicester, quaintly with identifying letters on their backs rather than numbers as worn universally, and Bath with their particular idiosyncrasy of never fielding a No 13.

I'm not arguing for a return to the 'good old days', merely for an acknowledgment of the lost culture of rugby. The apparently omnipotent broadcasters, Sky and BT, often quote statistics and refer to the past in a manner suggesting that top-flight soccer didn't exist in England prior to the establishment of the Premier League, and there's a definite sense of something similar emerging in rugby coverage too.

It's vital that rugby's positive traditions are not only retained but developed for the unique characteristics they represent; sadly, while most owners appear to be in for the long haul, such a tenure doesn't automatically imply a genuinely empathic appreciation on their part of the game's culture. Nigel Wray has been at the helm at Saracens for 20 years and while no-one can argue that he hasn't been good for the club as a commercial enterprise, that he has been a positive force in the overall rugby landscape is a much more difficult case to make.

Calvin recalls the story of a friend bringing two daughters to Old Trafford in the hope that it would inspire a lifetime allegiance to the club, but questioned how many future generations would enjoy such rituals. The question is equally valid when asked of The Rec, Stade Felix Mayol, or Allianz Park (it's in Barnet, in case you're wondering).

Some clubs are fortunate in that a sense of identity and culture developed through proud histories, and the positive relationship with their supporters is tangible. Leicester and Northampton come to mind. The sense of ritual and community around both Welford Road and Franklin's Gardens is striking.

Only time will tell for those franchises and owners presently at the top of the European game as to sustaining their supporters' appetite for the commercial product and their sense of identification with a team liberally populated by overseas players.

Many rugby people speak of the sport's future with a sense of deep foreboding as owners and broadcasters further tighten their grip. The apparent resentment with which the likes of Toulon's Mourad Boudjellal and Bruce Craig at Bath have spoken in relation to the international game is a huge concern, and clear evidence too of their lack of appreciation of the wider game from which they derive such huge advantages.

While we in Ireland have felt the brunt of the financial strength of the English and French of late, we're fortunate in that the structures and mores of our game have, to a large extent, been retained.

These are difficult times for the game in Europe. The major owners are dragging us all down a path of their choosing, a path I believe to be hugely detrimental to the sport's wellbeing. In a week of further IAAF revelations and a sponsor criticising Manchester United's style of play, it's hard to avoid cynicism, but the opportunity, the responsibility, exists for the national unions, particularly in England and France, to take back control and set a sustainable course for the professional game in the longer-term.

For the vast majority of rugby people there's far more to rugby, and to life, than "servicing the structured debts of rapacious absentee owners harvesting the profits of history".

Sunday Indo Sport

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