I’m beginning to lose faith in anyone who runs rugby at the moment after the suggestions emanating from the meeting of club owners held on Wednesday. They emerged from a meeting which many thought would yield a reduction of the salary cap and possible reduction in squad sizes proudly announcing that instead they propose an extended season with a further 5 or possibly 6 league games.
This is as a reaction to the credit crunch but if it is a success it could become a permanent arrangement. I spent a bit of time weighing up the pros and cons of this idea. After a few minutes the cons column was full and the pros column was completely empty. I originally noted that it would mean the demise of the much-maligned EDF Energy Cup until I realised that that was going to happen anyway.
There’s plenty to write about in the cons column though. First and foremost, we have long lamented the amount of rugby the top English players have to play every season compared with their Southern Hemisphere counterparts. This contributes towards the embarrassing tours on which we embark every summer because the players are broken after playing 30+ games in the season. Adding more games cannot be healthy for them and the welfare of the players should always be a primary consideration in any decision.
The extra games would be played in 6 Nations weekends, breeding the argument that it does not mean that players will have to play more. But the big names will no longer be able to rest during cup weekends and, with the internationals already missing 5 league games for the 6 Nations, clubs will be justified in trying to get as much out of their star players while they have them. The owners may be patting themselves on the back for avoiding redundancies and maintaining the current salary cap but they are still doing the players few favours.
This leads on to the next major point of objection. The new idea would mean that clubs will be forced to play even more Premiership games without their internationals. The impact of this is twofold. If their England players were to miss even more Premiership games than they already do then the clubs have no real incentive to sign English players or bring through young English talent. This can only be to the detriment of English rugby and the England team. This is a concern already and additional matches in international weekends will add to this.
England internationals missing more games would also be to the detriment of the Guinness Premiership itself. Strong squads based around English players would be completely hamstrung to the extent that they may miss out on the play-offs which, all things being equal, they would reach. Last season Wasps were clearly the best team in the country but, had they not gone on a formidable run in the second half of the season, they could easily have missed the play-offs because of their results in the autumn when they were without their World Cup players. You want to see the best teams get their just rewards and the new plan would compromise the chances of this happening.
The structure of the season is a mess anyway such that players must sometimes be wondering which competition they are playing in at any given time. This would further complicate it. It would also seriously damage any goodwill which may exist between England and the clubs. There has been some bad blood after the England management asked teams to rest their England players. Imagine how the clubs would react if this request came amid a structure where the international players miss up to 10 Premiership games anyway.
On top of all this, I am dubious over whether the plan would have its desired effect anyway. The club owners have produced the idea to confront the current economic situation and guard against falling revenues. But regular supporters are more and more likely to have to pick and choose their games. Season ticket holders will find themselves having to pay even more to cover the new games and part-time supporters will think twice before going to a game.
With their new plan, owners will be putting unreasonable demands upon players and supporters. They will also be messing further with a fairly messy season. And they will be skewing England’s major domestic rugby competition and removing any incentive to invest in young English talent. I cannot see how it will benefit English rugby in any way shape or form.
By Stuart Peel