Thursday 22 February 2018

Players facing prime-time challenge

(From left) Wales' Alun Wyn Jones, France's Guilhem Guirado, England's Dylan Hartley, Ireland's Rory Best, Scotland's John Barclay and Italy's Sergio Parisse. Photo: Reuters/Andrew Couldridge
(From left) Wales' Alun Wyn Jones, France's Guilhem Guirado, England's Dylan Hartley, Ireland's Rory Best, Scotland's John Barclay and Italy's Sergio Parisse. Photo: Reuters/Andrew Couldridge
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In late March last year, just a week after the Six Nations Championship concluded, the chief executive of the (English) RFU came out with a line that could have been scripted some three years earlier.

Speaking about the future of the Six Nations, he suggested narrowing the window from seven weeks to six, placing a greater workload on players by giving them less time to recover.

"We think it would improve it," Ian Ritchie said, seemingly with a straight face. "It would narrow the 'off' periods and help with the broader narrative. It's absolutely right to always be thinking about what to do to enhance, improve and make the Six Nations better."

You had to read that a few times when it was first issued, and it hasn't lost any of its madness in the interim. It was like suggesting that in order to improve your concentration you should deprive yourself of sleep.

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The reason this could have been scripted back in 2014 is that when, in the European turf war, the clubs of England and France wiped the eye of the Six Nations rugby unions you didn't need to be Nostradamus to see what was coming down the line: the promotion of the club game over the international one.

If it struck you as odd that the CEO of England's rugby union should be suggesting a Six Nations squeeze, which suited nicely the cause of clubs over country, then perhaps it was local politics in action. And given the current efforts of a handful of Premiership clubs in England to go all Trumpesque and build a wall around their patch, blocking traffic in or out, clearly that game is a dirty one.

Soon enough after Ritchie's suggestion that restricting your wriggle room somehow would make it easier to move, the Six Nations committee filed it under their column marked 'WTF?'. This was a relief to a few constituencies, not least the players.

"From our perspective we did a lot of work canvassing players around the world last year," says Omar Hassanein, CEO of the International Rugby Players Association (IRPA). "It's fairly unanimous that they have concerns about player-load demands, not just around this tournament but in general. In our eyes the commercial interests of the game and the player-welfare interests of the game have never been as much at odds with each other as they are now.

"Because of the pressures to drive more money into the game the various stakeholders are all looking for their pound of flesh. And the biggest stakeholder group to potentially suffer from that is the players. To put this in context one of the most senior players in the world sat down with me last year and was laughing, saying how could you entertain the idea of reducing a tournament that already is one of the most difficult tournaments in the world to anything less than seven weeks? It should be looked at in the context of extending it into more weeks.

"Until you're living it and understanding it you don't appreciate how difficult it is. And my concern is we've got people making decisions who've never come close to living it or understanding it."

Sanity prevailed in knocking back the Ritchie proposal, but neither Hassanein nor the Six Nations committee believe the threat has gone away. In which case it is fundamental to the survival of the Championship that they present a united front. And the landscape for that exercise is changing all the time.

In the next few weeks it will probably shift again. Currently the negotiations for television rights to football's Premier League are well advanced, and its outcome will surely have implications for rugby.

If, for example, Amazon and Google take a serious interest in this game then we're talking telephone numbers with prefixes. Moreover if they were successful it would still leave big players looking for content, so rugby could expect to pick up its share of that wedge. On the other hand, if the new big hitters don't dip into the Premier League then you'd wonder how much more cash the Skys and BTs have to give.

New players to the market should automatically mean more money, but sometimes things aren't always as they seem. The television carve-up over the European club game is the perfect illustration of this.

When four years ago the English and French clubs sundered the old tv deal with ERC, it was worth circa €19.5m a year from Sky. Pulling up a seat at the table for BT meant some fiddling around in order to accommodate both parties and stay out of court. So Sky paid a bit less for reduced content (€13m), and BT lobbed in the circa €18.3m that they had agreed with PRL, the English clubs' body. The aggregate was seemingly a pretty picture of more than €31m a year, but the one certainty was that both broadcasters wouldn't be sharing a bed when the next negotiations rolled around.

That point was last year, and sure enough the tv picture had altered. This time Sky were out, leaving BT as the sole premium pay tv broadcaster. But in securing the contract extension BT went back to roughly what they paid to get on board in the first place. If you had been one of the constituent clubs budgeting for one cash bonanza after another, this wasn't what you were after.

It's clear that the publicly-aired hand-to-hand combat that had attended the power struggle contaminated the commercial waters. But if the Six Nations manage not to crash the car, and the tournament itself delivers rugby to match its consistent full houses, then when the current deal is up for renewal in 2022 it should be very valuable property. Keeping it that way requires restraint and common sense.

"The more money that comes into the game through sponsors, broadcasters et cetera, that's almost a tug of war against player welfare," Hassanein maintains. "There's a few things we need to consider here: first, player welfare must always be paramount because you're in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water by compromising your greatest asset on account of making a few extra bob.

"The other point is that we're all playing different sports, and our one happens to be one of the most physical and enduring sports in the world. That's not to discredit footballers, but if you look at a sport that's most closely aligned with ours - American Football, NFL - they play about 16 games, and a max of 19 or 20 if they make the Super Bowl. So why are we, at the higher level of a confrontation sport, at the whim of the short-term gain that might be earned through a broadcast deal or sponsor?

"We've got to be incredibly careful that we understand our game properly: the nature of it, our athletes and how physical it is for them. We don't want a situation where injury tolls are so high that the game suffers to the point where mothers don't want their kids to play it."

At a meeting with World Rugby in Monaco last November IRPA's player leadership group - comprising some of the top Tier 1 players - made their case to the governing body about coming up with a template to cover training and playing loads in the professional game. Developing this will be ongoing throughout the year.

By the time the 2019 Six Nations kicks off, it's not unreasonable to expect that a sane structure could be agreed. Implementing it will be a challenge for all concerned.

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