- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Simon Halliday departed his role as European Professional Club Rugby chairman on Tuesday with a warning that World Rugby is sleepwalking its way towards disaster over brain injuries after revealing his own children do not play the sport due to safety concerns.
A former England centre, Halliday is one of rugby’s longest serving administrators having served on the Rugby Football Union Council as well as at club level for Harlequins, Bath and Esher. In a candid interview with Telegraph Sport, he reflects upon the bruising battles to form an eight-year agreement between European leagues and unions with a Club World Cup starting in 2024 as its centrepiece.
However that blueprint for future prosperity is overshadowed by the existential crisis that rugby faces over a concussion lawsuit involving dozens of former players. World Rugby has commissioned studies examining the effects of fewer replacements and lower tackle heights, but Halliday insists the governing body must act far more decisively.
“Change some laws fast,” Halliday said. “Get on with it. Why are you waiting? I am sick and tired of hearing platitudes. Make some decisions. You can commission as many reports as you like, but all I know is that my wife scared to let my boys play rugby and she will not be the only one. She is not a shrinking violet, she loves the game but she says ‘no way am I letting them play when you see the head shots they take.’ Participation levels everywhere are down, down, down. Make decisions and you will bring people back.”
World Rugby have recently introduced the 50-22 law and goal line drop out but their wish to limit contact training to a maximum of 15 minutes per week as advisory rather than mandatory is an example of Halliday’s point. “If they have the evidence why do not just act?” he says. “What are you waiting for?”
As a centre for Bath, Harlequins and England, Halliday missed the advent of professionalism and believes a lot of the solutions to rugby’s present problems are to be found in previous era, including fewer replacements and better tackle technique. “It is soul destroying to see those players suffering that because the game was different back in my day,” Halliday said. “The cuts, the wounds and the bruises were inflicted without cameras. There was a lot more blood and you gained a lot more scars from people who wanted to have a go at you. You took more of a kicking but we aren’t wondering about what our names are.”
Halliday has accumulated just as many scars in his six and a half year tenure as EPCR which he joined soon after the organisation was formed to run European competitions following a rebellion of the English and French clubs. Corralling a combination of self-interested unions, defensive leagues and megalomaniac club owners is less like herding cats than guiding an ambush of murderous tigers, but Halliday signs off having negotiated an eight-year agreement that provides long-term certainty to clubs and players. The vexed global calendar discussions are now at an end.
“There’s a unity from all three leagues (the Premiership, Top 14 and United Rugby Championship) to complement their seasons and dovetail them in with the European tournament from turnaround times,” Halliday said. “Before we were arguing about the dates of the quarter-finals. Now we have mapped out the entire calendar and while there are still a few grey areas like New Zealand playing Wales on October 30, there is now clear opportunity to negotiate in those situations.”
Certainly there is no room in this new calendar for a new tournament to pinch their best players as Ian Ritchie is proposing with his World 12s pitch. If the competition does go ahead, it will not happen with any elite European based players. “You can’t stop people talking but the decision-makers have spoken, they have signed an agreement, it can’t happen,” Halliday said. “Those siren voices are just going to fall on deaf ears. We are sick and tired of listening to this claptrap. It is just garbage.”
Halliday is similarly dismissive of World Rugby’s pitch to stage a World Cup every two years. “You just roll your eyes and think, why would they suggest something so nonsensical and without any consultation?’”
There has been plenty of in-fighting too from peacemaking in a row between Bath owner Bruce Craig and Toulon counterpart Mourad Boudjellal to dealing with frequent accusations of English bias. “I’ve been in boardrooms where it has been like the Hundred Years’ War all over again,” Halliday said. “My independence has been brought into question a number of times, which strikes at the heart of who you are but especially with my background in business I hope my track record speaks for itself.”
He has also had to field a number of unusual requests, including one from Saracens’ director of rugby Mark McCall to provide an extra 32 Champions Cup winners’ medals for his backroom staff. “He told me he wanted everyone who was part of their success to be recognised,” Halliday said, who eventually sourced the extra medals.
There is no competition, however, for most difficult executive to deal with. “Bernard Laporte, without a shadow of a doubt,” Halliday said after the World Rugby vice chairman called for the Champions Cup to be scrapped. “You respect other people’s tournaments. I don’t turn around and say ‘why is the Rugby World Cup being played in France?’ Let’s discuss that shall we? Maybe let’s ask the Irish? He will be delighted that I am moving on.”
Halliday can also look back with pride on taking the tournament finals to cities such as Newcastle and Bilbao. With South African franchises shortly about to join the European competitions and a World Club Cup agreed in principle for 2024 which would pit the likes of Exeter and Leinster against the Crusaders and Chiefs, Halliday believes the club game is on the precipice of an explosion in growth.
“We owed it to the players to get a structure in place,” Halliday said. “Now it is all about going off and delivering on it. With my financial background I have been involved for three billion pound mergers. You can get the agreement but execution is the key. This new agreement opens the floodgates because it can introduce South African teams, start the World Club Cup, give the emerging nations a pathway and focus on a big expansion of the women’s game. Now we have to drive it.”
What changes would you suggest to ensure the future prosperity of the game and the players? Let us know in the comments section below