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The future of rugby will be decided by a key question - cash or viewers?

Brendan Fanning


South Africans keen to join Six Nations action as TV deal still up in the air

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James Ryan wins a line-out ahead of Alun Wyn Jones during the Six Nations clash yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

James Ryan wins a line-out ahead of Alun Wyn Jones during the Six Nations clash yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

James Ryan wins a line-out ahead of Alun Wyn Jones during the Six Nations clash yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

This afternoon's Six Nations clash between France and Italy will have been written off by many before referee Andrew Brace gets it started.

After just one game in this Championship, the rugby world is upbeat about a resurgent France. A few months ago Sébastien Vahaamahina lit the fuse on the bomb that blew them out of the World Cup, in the quarter-finals against Wales. Then, a week ago, they hustled England out of a wet and miserable Stade de France via the tradesmen's entrance. At last, some bite to Le Crunch.

So you can imagine the interest in tonight's Milan derby at the San Siro will occupy more minds across Italy than what happens the rugby lads in Paris. If Franco Smith's team get tonked, it will be just another setback for a nation that haven't won a Championship match since beating Scotland, five years ago this month. Who wants to watch that?

Well, if you want to have any chance of growing your game then you can't have too many tuned in, regardless of how painful it can be to watch. Last week DMAX, a terrestrial free-to-air channel in Italy, had 300,000 viewers for company as Italy were milled in Cardiff. Had it been solely available via a satellite station then you could take a few zeroes off that. And that's not good for anyone's business.

If you accept that a competitive Six Nations is a good Six Nations, then you accept that having Italy as a free passenger in first class makes no business sense. And diminishing their rugby audience in the future by taking the product off terrestrial would not help.

That prospect popped into our heads when Ben Morel, CEO of the Six Nations, announced last week a head start on some important spring cleaning. Where once there were bits and pieces on the Six Nations shelf, dressed and priced differently for a variety of television markets, now there will be one, gift-wrapped bundle.

So at this time of year, you have the Men's, Under-20s and Women's Championships being sold off to various buyers - in the near future they will be part of a package. And if you extend that to the autumn internationals you have another chunk of saleable games. It will take a couple of years for these properties to see out existing contracts, but it will make a sweet deal when they are all on line together.

This hefty housekeeping, of course, is being done to tart the gaff up for CVC, who are keen to sign the cheque for circa £300m (€353m) for their 15 percent stake in the Six Nations.

As a sport, rugby drives broadcasters half-mad because it is so fragmented. Ideally, the big players want to position themselves as the one-stop-shop for a sport, in the way Sky settled on golf and motor racing - the latter when CVC were behind the wheel, dictating the direction, and leaving lots of disgruntlement in the sport when they withdrew long past their expected departure date, the pickings had been so rich.

It's important to appreciate the forces at work here: CVC want to turn a fat profit on their investment, and have zero interest in what the place looks like when they pack their bags and leave.

The Six Nations are gagging for the cash but need to have a game to work with when the hangover clears. Closing the door on terrestrial television pulls the shutters down on your shop window to main street. It is a dilemma that recurs across the codes in professional sport.

In an ideal world, you wouldn't touch the satellites with a barge pole. As an appreciation of how far it is removed from that utopia, witness the lobbying by the IRFU of Government back in the day to keep Ireland's home games off the a list of sporting events ring-fenced for free viewing. The problem is the terrestrials are very light on cash. In this jurisdiction, RTE are in the business of cutting everything that moves above grass level, and Virgin have nothing significant to offer. Across the water, BBC are a shadow of their former selves in the sports property business while ITV are not flush.

The solution has to be an accommodation of sorts between the likes of BT and ITV - and if we are headed to a Magnificent Seven with South Africa on board, as reported last week, then it remains to be seen what their TV landscape is.

No one should be in any doubt about the desire of the South Africans to sort their future. They want to expand their Pro 14 involvement. They feel loyalty to their Sanzaar colleagues but salivate at the prospect of getting into Europe's shop window, which would bring more cash, and in a friendlier time zone.

It is understood that the issue has never been raised at a Six Nations board meeting but a senior South African source confided recently that they were working on a deal that would secure SA rugby "forever".

There would be a battle with the clubs to carve out the space on the calendar to accommodate the Saffers, but if CVC are calling the shots in Premier Rugby then that's a starting point. As for Italy? We're going to speculate that CVC's concern for the well-being of the game in that country is on a par with their fears for Morris dancing. Not for the first time, rugby is entering a critical phase in its future.

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