The knife-edge upon which professional rugby union is balancing grows more precarious by the day. As with many parts of the leisure industry, Covid-19 has ruthlessly exposed vulnerabilities that might otherwise have stayed hidden. It has also shone a harsh light on the sport’s administrators and the leadership – or lack of it – they have shown in the game’s starkest hour of need.
It cannot be easy and making certain decisions must have been painful. Not half as painful, sadly, as some of the muddle-headed thinking that has emerged. What price the credibility of the Premiership when even the teams involved have had no firm idea who they will meet in the semi-finals on Saturday, none of the coaches could prepare their teams satisfactorily and more than 12 months’ worth of concerted effort by all involved risks being buried beneath off-field confusion.
Hiding behind Public Health England or the possible threat of legal action is all very well but had Premiership Rugby stuck to its widely reported stance about not rescheduling games once the packed season restarted in August the situation surrounding the postponed Sale v Worcester match would be altogether less messy. In France it is pretty straightforward: more than three positive players in the seven consecutive days before a game and the fixture must be postponed. In England, the land of endless fudge and expediency, even 19 positive tests at one club is not necessarily the end of it.
The upshot is that at least five Premiership clubs are up in arms and the majority of the rest are rolling their eyes. Of course the Sale v Worcester encounter could not go ahead last Sunday; the folly was to imagine it could be played without fatally undermining the integrity of the tournament. Premiership Rugby had previously deserved credit for restarting the league and reaching the final weekend without too many alarms. At the last hurdle, sadly, the organisation has tripped itself up, its dignity all over the place and the sport’s image unquestionably tarnished.
It all feels a little bit like one of those old televised cup draws when – duh – the velvet bag turns out to contain the wrong balls. Don’t worry, let’s laugh at ourselves and do it again. These days there is rather less wriggle room. Blustering bluffers have gone right out of fashion, as the prime minister is finding. There are moments – and this is another of them – when the whole of rugby union increasingly feels like an analogue industry in a rapidly changing digital world.
How can it be the Premier Rugby official sent out to explain on live television why Sale could play on is a good friend and former team-mate of the Sharks’ director of rugby. No problem with that in different circumstances but did no one think how it would look to have Phil Winstanley, PRL’s rugby director, telling everyone there was nothing to see here?
Where was the chief executive, Darren Childs, who has spoken in public about as often post-lockdown as Dominic Cummings? Clearly sticking a gnarled old-school prop forward like Winstanley in front of the cameras was felt to be a better strategic bet. Which leads to this: if a chief executive is not considered to be Premiership Rugby’s go-to troubleshooter in a crisis when exactly would he or she be?
This, remember, is the same organisation whose handling of the Saracens salary cap saga was scarcely distinguished by its gossamer-light touch. A few months ago it emerged that even the clubs themselves were distancing themselves from the body supposedly representing them.
Lord Myners, in his review of the Saracens affair, highlighted the need for independent directors and more transparency and accountability within Premiership Rugby. He also suggested that a culture of rule-bending and legal nit-picking had become commonplace in top-level English club administration, dating back to the decision in 2015 to brush under the carpet previous serious salary cap breaches.
“What is missing from almost every echelon of rugby is the presence of independent voices,” Lord Myners subsequently told the Guardian. “We don’t really have one in Premiership Rugby. Somebody has to say: ‘What’s good for the future of this game that we care passionately about?’ That’s the element that’s currently lacking.”
He went on to describe rugby union as “a tremendous sport but it hasn’t sold itself very well.” Almost four months down the track his words continue to resonate. Simply leaving it to the players to dig rugby out of yet another hole is no way to run a professional sport.
Confirmation South Africa’s four biggest provincial teams are to join an expanded Pro16 provokes several questions. Is it just a stalking horse for some future integrated league made up of global conferences with finals at the end of it? A springboard to South Africa joining the Six Nations in 2024? A desperate stab in the dark for all concerned? Or all of the above?
It might be wisest to wait and see if attendance figures (assuming live audiences are allowed back) for Dragons v the Blue Bulls and Connacht v Stormers show any significant upturn before getting too excited.
One to watch
Not only are New Zealand set to host Australia in a real live Test with more than 30,000 fans present on Saturday but the Bledisloe Cup game in Wellington will kick off in daylight, a rarity for the All Blacks in the modern era. Dave Rennie will be back in his native land, taking charge of the Wallabies for the first time, while the success of Super Rugby Aerotoa has whetted everyone’s appetites. Given the recent off-field wrangling between the respective unions, it has all the makings of a lively contest.