Wednesday 25 April 2018

Neil Francis: Premiership monster has squeezed life out of England

Turgid performances in Six Nations will continue unless country's club culture changes

Maro Itoje in action against Harlequins during the clash with Saracens in London last weekend. Photo: Paul Harding/PA
Maro Itoje in action against Harlequins during the clash with Saracens in London last weekend. Photo: Paul Harding/PA

Comment: Neil Francis

Well, here we are and strange though that it may seem the Ireland versus England reprise in the Aviva this Sunday just seems to have a little bit more bite than the main event at Twickenham.

Leinster versus Saracens really is more about differing cultures. It is still about good versus evil which makes it compelling, but both sides seem to be laying claim to being the good guys.

When Mark McCafferty pushed his way into changing the Heineken Cup into a new entity, he didn't really visualise what would or could happen further down the road.

Nor did he care about how he went about his business or who he upset on the way. He is the type of man who might heckle school children in a nativity play.

So I feel duty-bound, almost compelled, to have a pop at him and his acolytes - not because I'm spiteful - because he deserves it.

The last two weeks were educational but only if people are all prepared to learn. England's somnolent performances in the Six Nations Championship have their roots in that country's club game. Last Saturday Saracens played Harlequins at the Olympic Stadium in London.

There were in excess of 55,000 people at the game which was a pity because as an exercise in promoting the game to the east end of London, it was as exciting as a two-hour loop of the Angelus. It was dreadful to watch.

All 30 players spent the afternoon on the ground either doing scrum re-sets or bashing aimlessly into contact. Saracens and Harlequins picked and played all of their England stars and those who didn't play would have if they had not been injured.

The game was a triumph of marketing and 'razzmatazz'. Just a pity that the exhausted England players, trying hard as they could, didn't have any sap in their veins for the helter skelter of a London derby.

That bloody Six Nations match in Twickenham - what the hell were they doing playing it so close to our London derby? This Six Nations Championship thingy. It kind of gets in the way a bit of our Aviva Premiership doesn't it? An inconvenient interlude.

Last season Ian Ritchie, CEO of the RFU, pushed aggressively to condense the Six Nations into a five-week tournament. The absurd idea was met with strong resistance and from all sides and the motion was filed under B.

One thing that caught my interest about the idea was why would the CEO of the RFU want to squeeze more blood out of his players than was humanly possible? The suspicion persists that he didn't give a fiddler's about the physical or mental welfare of the players of the other five nations.

Mr Ritchie came over from the All England Club - tennis and croquet - savages and cannibals the lot of them. Funny how Roger Federer is now the dominant force in men's tennis simply by cutting the number of tournaments he plays in.

Anyway, Ian insisted that the namby-pambies play five high-intensity Test matches one week after the next. You had to question whose purpose did this serve. A lone voice raised in support of his proposal was that of Mark McCafferty.

Shout and roar, roar and shout and eventually you will get your way. The men charged with protecting the game in this part of the world showed that they had white of egg coursing through their blood vessels and, like cockroaches scuttling for cover in a kitchen when the humans turned on the lights, they showed what a bunch of invertebrates they really were.

The players stood their ground on the issue and the Premiership never got the chance to add an extra two weeks onto their own season.

At the end of that season Ritchie resigned from the RFU and went on to become the chairman of the Premiership clubs. Gamekeeper or poacher? What is the rugby equivalent of gender fluid?

Ritchie all the while was McCafferty's lap dog. Quite incredible that someone who is charged with promoting and safeguarding the international game would try and do damage to a 100-plus-year-old competition by shortening the space it takes place in and put its players' welfare in danger before swapping sides to do battle with your former employers.

Ian McGeechan in newspapers last week mentioned the C word in relation to the RFU's position with their clubs. Am I the only one who sees the irony in this?

England have no chance to centrally contract any of their players - none! They therefore have no chance to prepare England players for international duty. The languor of the Premiership season and the savagery inflicted upon them by their nutcase national coach.

The graph is going only one way. Geech said that the Premiership is 'hugely successful' which I find extraordinary. The Premiership and its constituent clubs have as a whole lost hundreds of millions of pounds in its short existence.

Leinster's opponents have lost £63 million up to and including the 2016 season. I am certain that trend has not been reversed. Strip out the £8 million annual subvention for each Premiership club from the benevolent RFU and those losses would double that figure .

As part of their takeover of the European competition, McCafferty and his buddies insisted that there be a level playing field. They insisted that the Premiership had promotion and relegation whereas the Pro12/Pro14 did not. It did not matter how you played, you could not be relegated.

Ian Ritchie is a wet week in the job and his first task is to bin relegation in the Premiership. There is to be no relegation or promotion from next year! Terrible that - one of the core cribs that the buccaneers had and suddenly it is a bad idea to have relegation. More delicious irony.

The other quibble was meritocracy. You had to push in your own domestic league to ensure that you would qualify for Europe. Meritocracy was just a buzz word and pushing hard in your own league really only became an issue if your squad wasn't big enough or good enough.

Clermont, Toulouse, Toulon, Racing, Saracens, Leicester, Bath all had big squads laden with international quality. They could play any player out of a quality squad of 45 players. Who is first choice?

However, if our friends across the water spot that Johnny Sexton only played in the Pro14 eight times this season, all the toys come out.

England are in a heap because their best players can't play their best rugby because they are physically spent. England's pack in Twickenham? 'Would it be ok if we only sent two horsemen of the apocalypse?' I have never seen an England pack look so average in Twickenham when it really mattered.

To compound things, the England players have to play when they are exhausted in special marquee games which they can't get out of because their clubs have them guaranteed to play with the television people.

What are our guys doing? Some of our guys were sipping pina coladas in Dubai. Recharge, relax and return.

Maro Itoje made a sleep gesture when he scored a try against a very poor Harlequins side last week - let's see if he does the same in the second half next Sunday.

In the meantime, we should tell our guests that Leinster intend to put out their fourth team against Zebre and Benetton in the coming weeks. We have had our noses rubbed in it long enough!

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