Nigel Farage would not approve. Two French teams dominated by economic immigrants will be coming to Twickenham on May 2nd with the aim of heading back over the channel with some booty.
Following last weekend’s semi-finals the two French giants Toulon and Clermont came through as victors and will now contest the Rugby Champion’s Cup final. This is the second time in three years the same two clubs have met in the final and the French Top 14 league has now contributed 5 of the last 6 finalists. The French haven’t been this dominant in Europe for centuries.
The foreign legion
But this isn’t just a French story. The starting Toulon XV contained a Welshman, an Englishman, an Aussie, 3 South Africans, 3 Kiwis, an Argentinian ….oh and 5 Frenchmen. Clermont’s starting XV was not quite so cosmopolitan but still included 7 non-French players. Once this Rugby World Cup is over we could see an increase in the foreign legion as the best of the Southern Hemisphere head north for a last big pay day.
Rugby has come a long way from the start of professionalism to where we are today. Money talks and the gap between the haves and the have-nots is increasing rapidly. What this means for the game is that everyone is trying to valiantly play catch-up with the French and some have already been left behind.
As it currently stands the teams representing Wales, Scotland and Italy are not competitive at the European level and without a large injection of cash it is difficult to see a way back for them. Ireland has consistently provided teams that have challenged for the top honours in Europe but it is now 3 seasons since they graced a European final. Is this a short term aberration or the start of a long term trend?
The teams from the two big countries are now beginning to flex their economic muscles and with big populations come big markets and with big markets comes TV money, gate receipts and chunky revenues. The rest have to find away to get invited to the party and share in the spoils or the gap will grow.
Professional rugby is now driven by markets and consumers. During last year’s protracted European negotiations the term meritocracy was used which is a euphemism for survival of the fittest. Those clubs or regions with money will come to dominate unless the market is in some way regulated. This brings us nicely to look at the two main issues that are defining rugby in the northern hemisphere today.
The strongest survive
The European negotiations accelerated the northern hemisphere rugby model towards the ‘free-market’, the strongest survive approach. Supporters of this approach argue that the weakest teams should not be financially supported by the strongest and that those individuals who have put large sums of money in to some of the teams should see a return on their investment.
This makes logical business sense but there is a key difference between business and rugby. In business if you destroy the opposition you win; in rugby, if you destroy the opposition you have no-one to play and your business suffers.
The ideal position is a balance between ensuring those that put in the time, effort and money are rewarded for their efforts but that there is enough competition to ensure that rugby continues to thrive in as many places as possible. Having 3 of the 6 nations in the Champions Cup not competitive is not good for European rugby and the governing body needs to ensure that rugby continues to have a strong professional footing in Wales, Scotland and Italy. This is not guaranteed,
Private money versus union control
The second dynamic that is cutting through northern hemisphere rugby is the dichotomy between those teams that have union ownership (or shares of ownership) and those that are privately owned. In general terms we can say the Pro 12 nations favour the union model while England and France have the private model.
There is some logic to the approach given the relatively small markets available in the PRO 12 nations. If we look at Wales we pretty much have the 4 teams based in the 4 population centres. If they are not going to be financially viable in these locations they are unlikely to be anywhere else in the principality. There is little scope to attract private investment to other population centres as a base so the emphasis would be on attracting investment to the existing teams.
The unions are trying to hold on to control but they are fighting a losing battle for the simple reason that it is the clubs (or regions) that pay their wages and as the financial clout of these clubs increases the union ties will grow weaker. Friction between club and country has blighted professional rugby and it will get worse before it gets better.
To date it has been the international game that has been the cash cow for rugby but as this reaches saturation point it is the growth in the club/region game that will swing the power balance away from the unions.
There is no easy answer to these challenges. Unions need to recognise that the clubs and regions are the centres of growth and need to be given more control over their fate.
With this control needs to come the clubs’ and regions’ recognition that they hold the future of professional rugby in a number of countries in their hands. A short term push for meritocracy will result in those with the biggest pockets winning and ultimately this may lead to professional rugby disappearing from a number of countries. This is in no one’s interests.