By former Harlequins boss and Melbourne Storm Chief Exec Mark Evans
IT’S BEEN coming for a few years, but it looks as if the time for compromise is all but over. The mood music coming out of Dublin, London and Paris doesn’t fill me with confidence and regardless of the short-term manoeuvrings, such as the setting up of an Anglo-French competition, the final outcome is far from clear.
On the surface this is about control and money. But underneath that the root causes of the conflict are more prosaic. European rugby is fundamentally unbalanced, with two countries large enough to support a national league (England and France), two probably flexible enough to adapt to a range of cross-border solutions (Wales and Ireland), and two being so small in commercial and playing terms that they require an integrated, cross-border, union-led structure with a degree of cross-subsidisation (Scotland and Italy).
The ‘one size fits all’ free-market model isn’t appropriate to this situation. But trying to square the circle, whereby the allocation of places and money is adjusted without creating significant unintended consequences, is proving impossible.
It’s this imbalance that creates all the problems of revenue distribution and participation structure. If you believe commercial power should result in political control and a proportionate share of the revenue, the two big countries will dominate. On the face of it this appears fair. But if you go for this ‘each to his own’ approach then over time it will lead to the disappearance of competitive Scottish and Italian-based organisations.
This will undermine the Six Nations and the World Cup, because effectively you’ll push two mid-tier rugby nations into terminal decline. On the other hand, current arrangements are slanted far too heavily in favour of the Pro12 teams.
It’s easy to suspect that both sides aren’t too bothered about achieving a balanced conclusion which keeps the long-term strategic aim of growing the game to the fore. They just want to win this fight.
The interesting country in all this is Wales. In recent years they’ve tended to align themselves with the Celtic fringe within the Six Nations and the IRB, but they must be tempted to break ranks. The game below national level is under huge pressure from Premier League football, the player exodus to France and a fragmented fixture list. If they were to switch allegiances they could negotiate a tremendous commercial deal, reenergise the game in Wales and probably achieve some protection for Italy and Scotland in the process.
For make no mistake, if Wales or Ireland defect, with union support, it’s game, set and match to the club-based leagues. Would the WRU take such a radical step and turn their backs on their Celtic partners? If they really want to protect their national game, they should give the idea serious consideration.