Saturday 20 January 2018

Neil Francis: Moving Six Nations start to April would be a disaster and must be resisted

England won the Grand Slam in 2016 and some seem very confident they will repeat the feat this year
England won the Grand Slam in 2016 and some seem very confident they will repeat the feat this year
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

When Steve Jobs went after John Sculley, the then CEO of Pepsi, to try and get him to join the fledgling Apple Macintosh Corp, the words he used were as forceful and persuasive an argument as you could make.

“Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

What a provocative treatise. How could you refuse? At what cost the opportunity?

William Blackledge Beaumont is a really likeable fellow. I have met him a couple of times, he is a big tin of Ronseal. Everything you think you know about him is true. An affable man and rugby gentleman. If they name a rugby championship after you while you are still alive that is saying something. A stellar playing career included a Grand Slam, and he captained the Northern division to victory over the All Blacks in 1979 — except you never really hear about it all the time. You would think that aged 64, a four-year term as chairman of World Rugby would be one endless round of junkets and first-class trips around the world. When you are the top of the food chain it is the Presidential Suite. It is First Class travel, the best seats at the game, any game you want.

Beaumont just isn’t the sort of guy who on his inauguration will voice up at the podium and say ‘come with me and change the world’ but that is exactly what he is going to do.

Despite lobbing as many grenades at World Rugby as often as I can, I do find that they are a well-meaning, relatively honourable bunch of right-minded functionaries who are crucially though always missing in action when the live bullets start flying around. However, given a choice between them and some of the other sporting bodies, where the stench of corruption at governing level completely overshadows the sport itself, well I know who I’d choose. As we head into the last vestiges — we the rugby community can point, not with a whole heap of conviction, that there is honour and a moral code in our game. World Rugby through some of their decisions and inactions chip away at that lofty pillar of integrity which we hold close . . . sort of!

The internal machinations of the organisation, I would wager, do not differ greatly from those that appeared in the BBC sitcom Yes Minister. My Favourite line says it all: “Under consideration means we have lost the file. Under active consideration means we are trying to find it.” (Bernard Woolley)

In Westminster we are certain that the bureaucracy runs the country. As for the administration of the game of rugby, I simply have no idea. The only thing I do know is that the power plays are equally as Machiavellian.

I think the election of Bill Beaumont is the signal for the biggest change in World Rugby since the advent of professionalism. The surest sign of this is that the candidature of Bill Beaumont went forward unopposed — always a sign that a deal of some kind has been done. Beaumont is not by definition a compromise candidate; he is there by agreement from all the mandarins — what’s coming is going to be highly unpopular.

Eight years ago Beaumont was the favourite for the top job but he lost support from the Australian camp at the last minute — Sir Humphrey meddling in affairs. The ballot was split at 13-13 and Bernard Lapasset, a compromise candidate, got in for two terms.

It is strange, is it not, that the northern hemisphere will have held the chair in this organisation since 1994. Vernon Pugh of Wales, Syd Millar of Ireland, Bernard Lapasset of France and now Bill Beaumont of England. That 26 years of hegemony is difficult to explain. Yes the Six Nations delegates can always out-vote the SANZA nations but the truth is that all direction, all influence and all trends come from south of the equator. They dominate the game on the field and they are the chief influencers off it.

Bill Beaumont may be a worthy chairman and a fantastic ambassador for the game but any election of a leader without blood on the floor never bodes well. Sure enough we find out how the deal is done with the first publication of his five-point manifesto.

Points 2 to 5 are fillers, it is point 1, the global calendar, which makes you stand to attention. “I will address the challenge of the global calendar immediately on taking office. World Rugby cannot be silent on this matter. This complex and important issue must have a solution designed to benefit the entire rugby community.”

This pretext is all done in conjunction with a player welfare sound bite which is thrown into the pot at the same time.

What is being mooted here? Well, they are looking to change the Six Nations to April. That is a major step, is it not? Before we ask why we have to assess where this brings us. Well they also need to stretch out the domestic season so that touring European teams in the southern hemisphere tour in July instead of June. The French Cup final is on June 24, how can you tour with half a squad? So that means you finish your season in July if you area an international player. When do you start up again? Well, the autumn series is being proposed for October.

Hold on, hold on, wait a minute. It looks like the whole northern hemisphere season is being turned upside down. What is going on here?

We have witnessed governing bodies like ERC crumble at the slightest hint of aggression or threat. A lot of these people don’t have the stomach for the fight and they capitulate and it seems that the best way for people with vested interests to get their way is to bully and threaten.

Steve Tew, the CEO of New Zealand rugby, has already got his agenda across to the wibbly wobbly wonders in the northern hemisphere. The global calendar does not suit us so you guys change your entire season or we’ll throw the toys out of the pram. Tew wants to profit-share in the SANZA tours in the northern hemisphere. There is no question of the same happening when Six Nations sides tour in the southern hemisphere. SANZA don’t want their super rugby programme interfered with so they have stated that Six Nations teams only tour in July. To accommodate that the Six Nations would have to be moved to April.

So, 134 years of international rugby tradition to be moved to accommodate a club competition in the southern hemisphere. The Rugby Championship finishes before October and SANZA would like the November internationals to be held in October. When is the off-season? Where is the benefit for players when it comes to player welfare? Who is driving this agenda? Why is this an ‘immediate challenge?’ How is it that at the first committee meeting at the end of the year the global calendar is number 1 on the agenda?

John Feehan has been quoted as saying that the time slot for the Six Nations is ‘non-negotiable’. What are the bets that it will be negotiated and in 2020 the Six Nations will have been moved to an April time slot?

Me? I think rugby is a winter sport and most rugby people spend that ghastly month of January dreaming of the start of the Six Nations. As a player, it is the only show in town. As spectators, whether we travel or watch on television, it is practically irreplaceable, no matter what sort of crap the matches throw up. It works in its current form.

They have meddled with the Heineken Cup and look what has happened in a short space of time. If the people who purport to run the game make such a huge decision based on the whims of the SANZA mandarins, they will make a mistake they won’t recover from. If you disenfranchise the constituent parts of the game — the watching and supporting public — you are gone and you will never recover.

The Global Rugby Calendar has always been an unwieldy programme. We shiver in sub-zero at Christmas time, they celebrate on the beach, that is the way it has always been. If SANZA want to change the global calendar let them change all of their fixtures and timings.

As for Beaumont, nobody questions his bona fides or his guts. I sincerely hope his legacy is not a botched attempt to change the global calendar. The number 1 issue within our game is still concussion and ironically for a player whose career was ended back in 1982 by consecutive and serious concussions maybe Bill would have focused on that.

As for the five-point manifesto, we might refer back to Jim Hacker and Bernard Woolley.

Woolley: “Shall I file it?”

Hacker: “Shall you file it? No shred it!”

Woolley: “Shred it?”

Hacker: “No one must be able to find it again.”

Woolley: “In that case Minister I think it’s best if I file it.”

No surrender.

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