Just a couple of months ago we were inside the rugby bubble. The Six Nations was coming towards a conclusion and domestic competitions were in full swing all over the world. We were saturated by the sport and we were comfortable, and when that happens you can start to pick holes.
Over the last few couple of years, highlighting rugby’s problems has become a popular thing to do. I admit I have been among the more vocal in that sense but it has become widespread. There is a temptation at the moment to just will rugby back, warts and all, because players will be desperate to play and fans desperate to see some action, but it is important to resist.
As and when rugby does return we need to see it in its best light. This feels like a seminal moment, an opportunity to reset and reboot and we have to accept that change never happens spontaneously. You almost need a moment like this to be able to reflect, declutter and broaden your perspective as to where we’re at, where we’ve been and where we want to go.
This is not the time to rip up the lawbook and start again but it is the time to start applying the laws properly. To name just a few issues, we should look at ruck entry, players going off their feet, box-kicking, reset scums, players goading each other and backchat to referees. I would like to see rugby borrow from cricket where teams are fined for slow over rates. It is in the lawbook that you need to set a scrum with 30 seconds, or a lineout within 30 seconds, or take a kick at goal within a certain amount of time. If those laws are flouted I want to see fines handed out – either financial or in terms of points. We’re trying to protect our sport and make it as viewer-friendly as possible – that has to underpin every change that rugby makes going forward. We have seen that changing behaviours is possible. Sam Warburton’s red card in the 2011 World Cup semi-final is a good example, and I believe Jared Payne’s 2014 sending off against Saracens in Europe is another. There are a few easy quick-fixes that would make the game quicker, slicker and more attractive to viewers.
A uniform global calendar that works for both hemispheres makes all the more sense in the current climate. Try explaining to someone who does not follow rugby just why we have a block of Premiership matches at the start of the season, then a couple of European fixtures and then a November series. I love watching the autumn internationals but at times like this you can take a step back, look at things with more perspective and just ask why they exist. You have southern hemisphere players at the end of their seasons and the north near the start of theirs – everyone is in a different mental and physical state. I’d like to see a block of international matches grouped together where club competitions go on hold and I’d like those Tests to be meaningful. At club level, let’s introduce the Club World Championship. At a World Cup you have to play seven consecutive games if you want to win it and what better way to prepare players for that level of intensity that doing so with their clubs. The clubs would get better value out of knowing they have their players for an extended period of time. A Club World Championship has been mentioned before but the reaction was lukewarm at best. It was a case of: “Why? We don’t need to change anything, everything is great.” Perhaps we are now in a position where people are more willing to listen to new suggestions.
In order to achieve that however, there must be greater cooperation and compromise among the unions, the league and all stakeholders. Put simply, we cannot afford not to. Every union is undergoing financial hardship at the moment to varying levels but the Rugby Football Union is the richest in the world and is expecting losses of £50m. All unions have to listen to one another, they have to hold hands – it almost feels like marriage counselling. The last 25 years, since professionalism was introduced, have been amazing, but we have to learn lessons to make the sport more economically sustainable. Let’s look at the “tier two” nations, who have always been in this situation. We’re starting to understand their struggles. Fiji, Samoa or Tonga come up to Twickenham and get only £50,000 for a game. Eyebrows are always raised but it then gets accepted and happens again. We have to stop accepting things and start asking questions as to why we’re doing certain things and make the game better and healthier.
The very first thing that must be addressed is the salary cap – that has to be reduced. The Premiership clubs made a collective loss of nearly £50m last year and you cannot keep throwing money at debt. Moderating the salary cap would ensure the health of our clubs and a way to do that would be getting rid of the marquee players rule. If you have one player earning, say, £500,000 and he’s a marquee but another player of similar ability who is not, that creates tension and drives up wages. I’m sure players will read this and say: “You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a player.” I want every single player to get paid as much as they can in a sport which is absolutely brutal but the harsh reality is that I also want this sport to survive. Players are taking 25% wage cuts at the moment and the truth is that may well become the new norm.
Taking things a step further, this may finally be the time to introduce central contracts. I wouldn’t say they are inevitable but I think a serious conversation about the issue is. It is a simple fact that in the current climate there will be major investors in our game who can help to bail out clubs and that comes with a cost. If the RFU provides financial help to the clubs they will want more control and a larger say and I think we are moving in the direction of central contracts. At the moment, clubs simply cannot afford to keep hold of their prized assets and I’m not sure it is worth them doing so given the limited amount of time they have them for. The compensation that they get for producing world-class players through their academies is not enough. The owners would not like central contracts but their businesses will have been hit by the lockdown. Any reasonable way that the pressure can be relieved would be welcome.
Of course, none of the above can happen without the players and the most important aspect of rugby’s return is their welfare. There are a huge amount of games to be played and the cold, hard truth is that the players cannot be expected to fulfil all of the fixture backlog. The key is finding the middle ground where a return doesn’t put a stress on the NHS so it is inevitable that in the short-term rugby will be played behind closed doors. Ultimately however, economics will play a big part in the return date because otherwise clubs will fold.