Sir Colin Meads spoke at a dinner the other day. He was asked the question: “Has professionalism been good for rugby?” Sir Colin’s simple answer was: “As a farmer and country man, NO.” This is not a man who glories in the negative, this was not about ‘better in my day’, this was a man who loves the game, watching in anguish as rugby dies out in the country towns.
Meads said: “At club level it’s going down the gurgler.” When Meads was chairman of King Country 25 years ago, there were 23 clubs in the region. Now there are 9. The top players leave in search of the money and the kids are being poached and semi-professionalised by the top schools.
The exodus creates fewer clubs in country regions. Fewer clubs means more travel time, more travel time means less available players, less available players means fewer clubs. It’s an extremely vicious circle.
I was thinking of Meads’s words when I was reading about the latest nonsense coming out of France and England. The top clubs of these two countries want to reduce the European Cup to 20 clubs from 24, with six teams from France, six from England, the top six from the RaboDirect pro 12, and the two winners of the previous year’s Heineken competitions.
In other words England and France want to squash rugby development in Scotland and Italy. They want to dictate to Ireland and Wales which teams those two nations can play in elite regional competition. And France and England each want the same number of representative teams as Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy put together.
If evidence were ever needed that the lunatics have taken over the asylum, then this is it. Does anyone relish professionalism on the terms of the greedy capitalist where the strong bullies the weak? How is that going to develop the global game?
And it’s not even as if English or French rugby is anything to write home about. Both leagues are stuffed with foreign mercenaries and both leagues produce a brand of defence orientated rugby (with the occasional noble exception) that is stultifying to watch. No wonder England have no midfield to speak of. Its leagues are populated with bashers and Pacific islanders.
If Sir Colin bemoans what professionalism has done to New Zealand in terms of club rugby, what about England? Once upon a time Coventry, Moseley, Gosforth, Orrell and many, many more were among the powers in the land. But now rugby in the North and West Midlands has been devastated by professionalism, grounds have been sold off and the game is dwindling.
The situation is so bad that Mark Evans, the former chief executive of Harlequins, proposed reforming the North, a regional side to take on touring teams. Some of us can still remember kids hanging from trees to watch the North, the heart of the England team, take on the All Blacks at Otley.
Those trees are empty now. Soon there may not even be a northern team left in the Premiership. And what of heartland New Zealand? There is some great rugby being played in the Super 15 and ITM Cup, full of compelling, attacking football. But what of the clubs? When the boost from the Rugby World Cup dies out, what then?
More than ever this great game needs strong governance. It needs the RFU and the French Federation to stand up to their top clubs. But it won’t happen, because these are craven men, nourished on brandy and cigar smoke who crawl before mammon as they plan their next junket and look for the nearest back to slap.
And so great men like Meads are reduced to the role of clownish after dinner speaker, while a few self-serving gluttons carve up the rich meat for themselves. There is enough money to go round, but sadly we don’t live in that sort of world any more.
Oh well, at least there is the Lions to look forward to.