Sunday, January 14, 2007

The end of elite rugby in England?

According to the Sunday Times the RFU in their eternal wisdom are to announce a new blueprint for how elite club rugby should be organised in England. On the face of it the plans look like a very elaborate suicide note for elite rugby in England.

Not surprisingly, according to the Times, they are looking to move towards a franchise system from 2009, similar to that operated by the other home unions, whereby the clubs in the elite tier will be owned by the RFU and there will be no promotion or relegation. According to its supporters this system will strengthen the national team. The elite players will be under the control of the RFU and therefore will be able to concentrate on peaking for England games rather than slogging their guts out for their clubs every weekend. Meanwhile the franchises will become nurseries for English talent as, freed from the fear of relegation, they will be willing to risk youngsters rather than bringing in experienced foreigners. These arguments have been kicked round for many years, and frankly whether we like it or not franchising is probably going to happen at some point or other.

What has sent a chill down the spines of club rugby fans up and down the country is the list of potential franchise locations. According to the Times they will be "Newcastle, Leeds, Manchester, Coventry, Worcester, Bedford, Saracens, Richmond, Bristol and Plymouth." Missing from this list are the clubs with probably the biggest (and most rabid) fan bases in Leicester, Northampton, Bath, and Gloucester, the current champions in Sale, as well as famous names such as Wasps and my own Harlequins.

Personally I cannot take this seriously. The game in England would rip itself apart if the RFU ever pushed this as an option. The clubs left out would be unlikely to go quietly into the night playing semi-pro rugby in an emasculated Division 1. Although in time the lure of european and international rugby would mean the players would gravitate towards the RFU I can't see the average club fan deserting their traditional club to travel 30miles down the road to watch a created franchise. Given their precarious financial state at the moment I can't see how the RFU could afford to support 10 teams without significant fan bases, the SRU are struggling massively to do it with three!

If the report is true this must be an attempt to rattle the premiership clubs cages. The fact that the four premiership clubs who would get a franchise are the most doveish cannot be a coincidence. But even as a negotiating position this doesn't make much sense, it just has no credibility. The only outcome will be to antagonise the big clubs even more, just when we (the long suffering fan of both club and England rugby) need them to sort out their difference before the England team implodes and the English clubs slip further down the european pecking order.

Therefore one must conclude that this is just a journalist getting the wrong end of the stick over a boozy lunch. The alternatives just don't bear thinking about.

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