Future historians will pinpoint the past few days as the moment global rugby union came face to face with stark reality. Like an iceberg few imagined would ever melt, huge cracks and fissures are threatening to widen and cause a ripple effect even in places where the sport is theoretically supposed to be strongest.
It is not so much the inevitable postponement of all this July’s Tests, with the severe financial pain that entails, that is the giveaway. Nor is it the sight of players still jogging around in small groups, uncertain when the government will permit a return to full-bore training. No, the really sobering stuff is to be found unfolding in the southern hemisphere, with every prospect that similar issues will soon drift north.
On Friday, for example, it was announced that World Rugby have had to dole out Aus $14.2m (£7.5m) in funding to Rugby Australia to keep the governing body afloat following the postponement of the July Test window. Good judges are already predicting the game in Australia will have little realistic option other than to go semi-pro or amateur, threatening the competitive foundations of the Rugby Championship and beyond.
Pressure is also building in South Africa, home of the world champions. With the Covid-19 situation worsening and the rand weakening, pay cuts and other savings have had to be made to reduce the sport’s overall budget by R1.2bn (£53m) before the end of this year. The country’s leading players have had a three-week window in which to decide whether to cancel their existing contracts or stay put. For a good number, it is set to involve a one-way trip to the airport. The outstanding Springbok hooker Malcolm Marx is off to Japan while the future of the world player of the year, Pieter-Steph du Toit, remains uncertain.
No big deal, you might think. But what if South African domestic rugby loses even more of its biggest names? Where is the irresistible attraction in their teams heading north to play in European tournaments? How much might it undermine the competitiveness of the midweek fixtures on next year’s British and Irish Lions tour, assuming the latter runs to its proposed schedule? What is the point, with USA Rugby also bankrupt, in spending big to conquer the game’s distant frontiers while backyard debts are piling up at home?
Those close to the discussions about the potential shape of the 2020-21 season genuinely fear we are glimpsing just the tip of the aforementioned iceberg. They predict government interventions and further World Rugby bailouts will be needed to prevent a titanic calamity. If there is a second peak of infections later this year, what then? Even in the event of some form of autumn Test programme taking place, is it really practicable – or desirable – for rugby teams to be criss-crossing the globe this autumn? And even if a mooted home unions tournament fills the gap, what are the chances of 81,000 fans, many of them elderly, physically attending? The doomsday financial scenarios outlined the other day by the Rugby Football Union’s chief executive, Bill Sweeney, are looming ever larger.
Everything is relative, of course. There are proper life and death battles being fought elsewhere which clearly put rugby’s concerns into sharp perspective. But as one source put it: “Nobody can say everything is going to be OK to play in October.” If not, starved of the big match income that fuels the whole global rugby machine, everyone remotely connected with the sport is about to suffer the kind of hit that would make Manu Tuilagi wince.
Suddenly it makes the leagues of England and France feel less like big bad wolves preying on others’ prized assets and more of a precious safe haven for players with families to feed. French squads, however, now have to carry more home-qualified players and, as things stand, big crowds will not be flocking to English rugby grounds any time soon. Hence the current dash to play in Japan, even if that necessitates packing a suitcase full of face masks.
There is only a single option for everyone else: to cast aside old enmities and grievances and pull together in the sport’s darkest hour. Talk to anyone and they will highlight rugby’s fragmented nature: the haves v the have-nots, north v south, clubs v country and so on. With so many dominoes now teetering, self-interest simply has to give way to the common good in the all-important fixture negotiations due to take place in the coming days.
That just happens to be the same message oozing from every clear-sighted paragraph of Lord Myner’s on-the-money report into the English Premiership salary cap saga. His review was strictly limited to the specifics of the cap and its future application but the thrust of the recommendations could apply to all aspects of a game which has deluded itself for too long.
“I was struck by more than one of the people I interviewed expressing pride in their authorship of ingenious ways to circumvent the regulations, assuming this to be an acceptable way of gaining competitive advantage,” noted Lord Myners. “If the clubs continue to adopt an attitude that the regulations and procedures are a matter for private negotiation, then faith in the system will not be rebuilt.”
Saving the professional game worldwide from oblivion will require similar recalibration for the greater good. Clinging vainly to the concept of the survival of the fittest will kill the sport stone dead.