Thursday 14 December 2017

Peter Bills: Favoured few too greedy to let game grow

Peter Bills

Someone once wrote about the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, calling it a place of cascading contradictions. Who can doubt that such a description fits perfectly professional rugby?

At the completion of another World Cup, this New Zealand version of 2011 being perhaps the most successful to date, it is an appropriate moment to study rugby and its own 'cascading contradictions.'

Sixteen years since professionalism, an event that was supposed to set the sport on the road to global advancement, this latest World Cup has seen the same old suspects prosper. The last eight comprised Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina from the southern hemisphere; Ireland, Wales, France and England from the north.

As in 1987 at the very first tournament, a few minnow nations had their 15 minutes in the spotlight, if we can put it that way. But the enveloping darkness quickly resumed.

Like Saudi Arabia, rugby is a world of brutal 'haves' and 'have nots'. The major unions with their ancient voting power in the game's corridors of authority continue to hold sway. They enjoy most of the money too, especially the countries of the northern hemisphere where population numbers offer a rich annual harvest.

In Saudi Arabia, there are extremely rich and very poor people juxtaposed in the same environment. Rugby is the same. Smaller nations like Fiji cannot even find a shirt sponsor sometimes. They play top-tier nations only rarely, such as at a World Cup, and they play games in front of modest crowds.

England, by complete contrast, have sponsors' money pouring into their coffers. Each time they play an international, 80,000 people pay anything up to about £6m to attend. This imbalance mirrors perfectly that of the desert kingdom.

Then there is the harsh hand of authority which rules ... in rugby and Saudi.

In this recent World Cup, swingeing fines have been handed out for the heinous crimes of expressing personal opinions in public, wearing a mouth guard with some lettering on it that no one could read, and exceeding by a few metres a position on the field in which players were supposed to stand.

This sense of bullying by the authorities is to be seen in Saudia Arabia, for sure, but also in rugby. Yet for the favoured few, like England who were guilty of premeditated cheating, another code applies. Was it not ever thus in the mighty power of the Middle East?

It is another 'cascading contradiction' that in the countries that offer the prospect of real future growth -- the USA, Russia and China -- rugby remains a fledgling activity.

A Rugby World Cup has never been staged in these nations. Instead, that cash cow has only entered familiar meadows: New Zealand (twice), England (twice by 2015), South Africa, Wales, Australia and France -- in other words, the nations of power and greater influence that hold most of the voting cards.

It is true that Japan will be the hosts in 2019. But you can bet South Africa will be applying withering pressure to gain the honour again in 2023.

Surely, though, this burgeoning tournament must go to new lands where it could provide a real stimulus in terms of the growth of the sport?


In rugby, as with Saudi Arabia, an old guard shows no signs of release of privilege. This cabal fiercely protects its position of eminence and its wealth.

Yet, its achievements are modest, some might say poor. For example, rugby is in desperate need of a global season, a structured format that incorporates both hemispheres.

Yet it appears to be beyond the wit and ingenuity of those who run the game to compromise for the sake of the sport's future. The problem is, as in Saudi Arabia, too much power and wealth is invested in too few hands.

Individual financial arrangements also need to be re-assessed with, perish the thought say some, sharing on the agenda. It is a nonsense that countries like Australia and New Zealand are dipping into their reserves, just to keep their heads above the financial waters.

Meanwhile, the likes of England, the Saudis of the northern hemisphere, accrue ever more riches partly because they flatly refuse to share the gate receipts at Twickenham.

New Zealand, the best on the field, are the poor relation off it, by comparison. Sometimes they struggle to sell out Test matches of 38,000 capacity.

It seems to me that until these issues are properly addressed, rugby cannot yet call itself a true professional, progressive sport.

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