Last week, I reviewed the playing time of respective hemispheres, and it was clear that NH teams and players spend a lot more time on the pitch than the southerners. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback and comments about that blog and the main question raised was relating to competitions such as the Currie Cup (SA), ITM Cup (NZ) and National Rugby Championship (Aus) and the involvement of international players.
From the research I did, it became clear that the teams involved in these competitions were rarely able to call on senior players. There was the odd occasion where a player returning from injury played to regain match fitness, but these were few and far between. As a result, I maintain that the stats previously are as accurate an overview as you can get without taking individual playing stats.
Following the results of the initial blog, I said I’d give some suggestions of where the north could turn. Many of the following suggestions won’t be universally liked and are pretty drastic changes. Lots of people have said that knee-jerk reactions aren’t required, and I agree – but these changes are suggested based upon a culmination of slow progress for the last 8 years, whilst the south has constantly evolved. I fear that for the north to catch up, it’s going to need revolution, not evolution.
Firstly, summer rugby.
This has regularly been mooted and the argument has always been that the south can play better rugby because of the weather conditions. I can only assume that the person championing the weather conditions argument has never been to Christchurch in June. Or July. Or much of the year, in fact. Now compare that to Toulon!
In the previous blog I mentioned that one of the reasons for NH v SH differences was “The style of rugby played in the NH suits only the NH and is not conducive to winning on the world stage”.
The conditions in the NH of course have an effect on the type of rugby played but to suggest conditions are the only reason for the gap between the hemispheres is short-sighted.
However, a switch to summer rugby can’t be a bad thing. It won’t solve everything, but nothing will. What it will help though is to align the Northern tournaments with the South, making a global rugby calendar. Clubs will know when players are available, and international sides can properly prepare for the major competitions, with similar timings.
But why should the north change? Why don’t the south change to OUR schedule? The short answer is that a change in seasonal rugby will not be a World Rugby initiative, it will be a localised one and the south have no incentive to change. If it ain’t broke…
Compared to the point above, which I think most will see some merit in, many club rugby fans will not only disagree with this, they’ll hate it!
The SH version currently has 18 teams. These “franchises” encompass regions and each franchise has a link to a traditional club. Canterbury are over 130 years old and I’m sure when Super Rugby started in 1996 there were detractors as to how it would affect the clubs. But there is one over-riding factor: the end goal. In the SH, this is to provide top quality international players to create international teams that can compete for the biggest prizes.
What of the NH? The goal of clubs here is to win your national title, compete well in Europe and keep the private owners happy. Some might argue this isn’t the case, but why else would matches be so shoe-horned in?
So what might a Super Rugby look like in the north?
Let’s have a look.
English franchises (4)
London (Harlequins, Saracens, London Irish)
South West (Bath, Gloucester, Exeter)
Midlands (Wasps, Worcester, Northampton)
Midlands/North (Leicester, Sale, Newcastle)
Welsh Franchises (2)
East (Cardiff, Newport)
West (Ospreys, Scarlets)
Irish Franchises (2)
North (Ulster, Leinster)
South (Munster, Connacht)
Scottish Franchises (2)
French Franchises (4)
Paris (Stade-Francais, Racing)
South East (Montpellier, Toulon, Castres, Toulouse)
South West (Pau, Agen, Bordeaux, Brive)
Central (Clermont, Grenoble, Oyonnax, La Rochelle)
Italy Franchises (2)
You could argue this is just copying the south, but they’ve found a system which works for them and why wouldn’t it work in the north?
Well, the main two reasons it won’t work is club ownership in the north, and the power those owners have, and the inevitable outcry from the fans at the debasing of their clubs. It works so well in the south because Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have very few large cities, especially where rugby is prevalent. Of course the game is played all around these countries, but the franchise cities are clearly the largest in each region, while secondary cities are used rarely for matches.
In contrast, ask Bath fans, for example, how they’d feel about a South-West Franchise which took the best players from their club, Gloucester and Exeter and rotated home matches between the three stadia. Not just the fans, either – how would Bruce Craig feel knowing the RFU and a union-owned franchise had first dibs on his best talent? Or how would Craig feel at being an owner/stakeholder in a new franchise versus that of his current club?
The south had to deal with these issues previously, but to a much lesser extent. Rugby doesn’t have the tribalism that football has in Europe but the fans are no less dedicated to following their clubs and regions around the country and changes such as these would polarise fans significantly.
Of course, you have the positives (less games, the top players of each country playing together much more regularly, and against higher quality opposition, inclusion of other European nations and closer interaction with the Unions) but I’m a realist. This idea won’t have any legs in the north – it’s at the extreme end of the scale of revolution and I’m not so blinkered as to have missed that.
Something has to give though, and I’ve yet to see anyone (media, blogger, fan or otherwise) come up with ideas about how we can evolve. You can complain about the growing gap, the style of rugby, the physicality, the injuries, but don’t keep presenting problems: think of solutions, too, however barmy others might think them!