England’s club owners launch another ruinous takeover bid Posted about 12 years ago

Imagine if the new CEO of English rugby conducted an investigation into why the England team was underperforming and came up with the following stunning answer: it was all down to England’s clubs and an agenda that was completely inimical to success at international level.

Well, what would Ian Ritchie do then? Cricket pretty much came up with that answer just over a decade ago and decided to centrally contract its leading players. That won’t happen in rugby. The clubs won’t have it. They would no longer be able to blackmail the RFU.

But Richie is facing a huge problem. The club system is bankrupt both financially and in terms of producing quality English qualified rugby players. An English club has won the Heineken Cup once in the previous seven years and there is no sign of improvement on that dismal statistic. The rugby played by them in the Heineken Cup this season, with the occasional exception of Harlequins (presided over by an Irishman), has been pitiful.

Yet is there any humility from the clubs? No, just the opposite in fact. Danny Care behaves appallingly and is dropped by his country, but only fined by his club. England players behave dreadfully at the World Cup and the clubs apologise on behalf of the country, but of course take no responsibility themselves.

And now we have a constant bombardment from the owners as they try to blow up international rugby once and for all.
Bath’s owner Bruce Craig wants to seal off a block of time that is exclusively for the clubs, and then squeeze international rugby into the other weeks. And just so you know where he is coming from, the suggestion came with a none too subtle threat about withholding assets (i.e. the players).

The English and French clubs have been covertly considering a move to summer rugby, a season that would begin in March and end in November. So that’s an end to Lions tours and much else besides. You see, the clubs don’t want to lose “their” players to a World Cup again.

And then Nigel Wray, speaking as an individual but clearly a spokesman for the other clubs as the reasonable man who has been there from the start, said: “As I have said before, the southern hemisphere must be laughing their heads off.

“They wouldn’t dream of playing the Tri Nations during their Super 15, wouldn’t dream of coming here to play winter internationals during their domestic season. And they wouldn’t dream of receiving our international sides in the summer if it in any way clashed with, once again, their own domestic season. We, of course, do the opposite.’’

For Nigel’s information the Southern Hemisphere unions contract their international players and many of them are rested for periods of the Super 15. And almost none of them play domestic club rugby any more.

But of course Wray knows that, just as he knows that the Southern Hemisphere unions are in financial strife because of having to compete with the ludicrous wages paid by French and English clubs.

You could of course paraphrase Wray by saying: “The Southern Hemisphere wouldn’t dream of letting their clubs contract their leading players. They wouldn’t dream of letting overseas players take up half the spots in the Super 15. They wouldn’t dream of having their provinces dominated by foreign coaches. But we in England of course do the opposite.”

So over to you, Mr Ritchie, and good luck. You’re going to need it.

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Mark Reason has been a sports journalist for over 25 years. He currently works for Fairfax Media and will also be part of the Telegraph's World Cup team and a regular panellist on Radio New Zealand during the World Cup. He has covered every Rugby World Cup since 1991, the 2000 and 2008 Olympics, over 40 golf major championships, the FA Cup final, the Epsom Derby and a lot of other stuff he can't remember. Mark emigrated to New Zealand in 2010 having spent over 20 years covering sport for the Telegraph and Sunday Times in Britain.

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