Is it time to take aim at one of rugby’s sacred cows and ask whether it is worth introducing segregation into the Aviva Premiership?
I was asked that very question on Sunday night by Nick Mullins, the velvet voice of rugby, after Clermont Auvergne’s 29-9 victory over Toulon at a raucous, bouncing Stade Marcel Michelin. Instinctively, I disagreed. One of the fundamental tenets of watching rugby is being able to sit next and share a beer with an opposition supporter.
Yet it is hard to deny that English club rugby lags a long way behind the French in terms of atmosphere. Attending a match at the Stade Marcel-Michelin should be on the bucket list for every rugby supporter. The noise, the colour, the passion is just off the scale. It is like what you imagine a South American football game to be like. There was no need for flamethrowers, deafening music or an over enthusiastic stadium announcer. The whole game was electrified by the crowd rather than the other way around.
Away supporters do travel in English rugby but very often they are dispersed throughout the home fans so it is very hard for them to add that noise and colour. If you could reserve part of one stand just for away supporters I agree with Mullins that would add so much more to the spectacle of the game.
Maybe segregation is the wrong word because that invokes images of how football crowds are managed. You wouldn’t need a line of stewards and of course fans would still be free to sit where they want but if you had a single bank of supporters that would encourage a lot more singing, colour and noise. After the game you could just as easily share a beer with the home support.
The atmosphere aside there’s very little you would want from the French league imported into English rugby. I find it astonishing that a league that generates twice as much television revenue as the Premiership (about £76m a year v £38m) and seven times what the PRO12 receives can produce such an inferior product.
With all this money sloshing around, owners spend ridiculous sums on players with the attitude that if I spend top dollar then I should expect the world in return. Yet the whole set-up of French rugby seems geared towards getting the worst rather than best out of their players. Their season runs from early August until June if their team goes all the way. They are flogged like carthorses.
You see the size of some of these players and they can’t be fit, but they are just conditioned for this attritional, slog of a game. Take a player like Ma’a Nonu. He was one of the players of the tournament at the 2015 World Cup combining his obvious physicality with real skill. Since joining Toulon two seasons ago he has regressed and his All Black standards have dropped.
Not only is the Premiership a far higher standard of rugby, but I think it will become increasingly the preferred option for many southern-hemisphere big names. The money is in France, but the quality of life and rugby is in England. If you can extend your career for an extra couple of years while enjoying yourself then an extra £50-100,000 loses its appeal.
There are exceptions. Clermont are a proper club with a clear vision that everyone buys into. There’s a real empathy with the supporters and the players clearly enjoy playing their rugby there, which is not something you can say of every club. La Rochelle, the leaders of the Top 14, and Brive also play with real spirit.
As for the rest, there are just so many stories I hear of owners going into the changing room at halftime, screaming and hollering at the players. They demand success whereas in the Premiership they develop success. No where is that better demonstrated than Toulon where Mourad Boudjellal has appointed his third coach this season.
Mike Ford was this week’s fall guy, but he had the shortest of short straws coming in midway through a season with a squad that was already in decline. Guys at Toulon are fond of saying that they do things differently, but if that means being allowed to miss training, as a few stories I hear suggest, then maybe you have to ask yourself some serious questions.
For Toulon to get back to where they were, they need an exceptional leader in charge of them. They also need to have some able generals within the team. Once Jonny Wilkinson, Bakkies Botha and Carl Hayman left, guys who really demanded the very best from their teammates, things fell to pieces.
You would think that would have caused Boudjellal and other owners to pause and consider whether theirs is the best approach, but you doubt it will have any effect. They will go on hiring and firing, screaming and shouting. All the time the Premiership will thankfully move further and further ahead.
- Austin Healey is a proud ambassador of Jeep Grand Cherokee. www.jeep.co.uk