This week’s blog starts with an admission – it was written a good few days ago. My normal procedure when writing one of these (I’m sure you’ll agree) incredibly well-informed pieces is to publish it pretty much straightaway (after the obligatory spellcheck and skim-read obviously). But for this edition, I have simply not been able to do that. On Monday, when this post is finally published, I will be at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe preparing for my first show with The Buzztones (an A Cappella super-group that I sing with in one of my other lives). As such, I am taking a slight gamble that no major rugby story breaks in the three day gap between me writing this and publishing it. If that does happen and, for example, Dan Carter reveals himself to be the alien from a superior rugby planet that we suspect he is, then I apologise that no more words will be devoted to such big news. I don’t think we’ll get such a story though. As mentioned last week, August is something of a barren month for rugby fans – a period of limbo stretching from the end of the summer tours to the start of the new season. A lack of rugby news is to be expected. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Those of us who feel rather undernourished by the lack of rugby action can turn our attention to the southern hemisphere where the Super 15 season has just come to an end and the recently-expanded Rugby Championship is about to begin its second year. Last year’s inaugural tournament between the south’s ‘big four’ nations was a belter with the newly inducted Argentina more than holding their own against the more established ‘Tri-Nations’. In fact, their participation was deemed so successful that there are already plans afoot for Argentine club rugby to be represented at ‘Super Rugby’ level. This would obviously be good news for a country that is quickly establishing itself as one of the major players of the global game, but how would such a move affect the northern hemisphere?
At this point, I need to state that the effort made to strengthen Argentinean rugby is good for the game as a whole. For far too long, top-level rugby has been confined to a handful of nations. Expanding the global game into parts of Asia and South America is a major part of IRB strategy, and rightly so; the blessed game needs to develop. But as rugby union becomes a truly global sport, change will inevitably be felt in the traditional heartlands of Europe. This will happen in two ways. First of all, as was shown in the Rugby Championship and the autumn tests last year, international rugby will become more competitive. The emergence of another southern hemisphere giant with a large population and potentially large playing pool will mean that the likes of Wales, Scotland and Ireland will have to punch further above their weight if they are to be successful against sides from the south (a task all three have historically struggled with). Argentina could well be ranked in the top three in the world in a few years time and a potential change to the old world order is definitely on the cards. But this should be encouraged. It would certainly give value to the Rugby World Cup which still suffers from a blight of easy games in the group stages. A strong Argentinean side also provides some variation to the international calendar. They’re a threat no doubt, but a threat the home nations should relish in attempts to nullify.
Of greater concern is the potential impact that Argentinean inclusion in ‘Super Rugby’ could have for the north. For the Argentinean clubs themselves, it would be a great move. It would finally mean that Argentinean players will be able to stay at home rather than having to seek top-flight rugby in other parts of the world. Historically, the cream of the Argentinean crop have plied their domestic trade in France. That resulted in an Argentinean national side that often played better away from home (as the crux of their players were used to their European surroundings). Argentinean players turning out in the northern hemisphere leagues became the de facto scenario for anyone born within the shadow of Buenos Aires who was handy with an egg-shaped ball. But things will almost certainly change if the proposed ‘Super 18’ comes into force in 2018 with two Argentinean sides included. The need for players to up sticks to France or England will be significantly lessened and, as such, there will be fewer Argentinean players taking up squad places at northern hemisphere clubs. You may think that’s a good thing as it could create more chances for home-grown players. However, with the era of French riches looking likely to continue for a few years yet, the draw of Super Rugby for Argentinean players will inevitably mean that the multi-millionaire owners of Toulon, Clermont and Toulouse etc. will look to recruit more top players from other nations. New Zealand, Australia and South Africa will feel some of that new recruitment drive but it will be the home nations that will bear the brunt. And so we come back to the question that has dominated the English and Celtic leagues for the past couple of seasons. How do you prevent your best players from moving to France where they’re promised the big money? The Aviva Premiership may have the depth of talent to ride this storm but I really fear for the Celtic league where sides simply cannot afford (both financially and tactically) to lose a large number of their best talent. Could we be seeing the start of the marginalisation of home nations domestic rugby? That, of course, remains to be seen but the expansion of southern hemisphere club rugby will need to be watched closely by the stakeholders of the northern game. It adds another element to the ‘future of northern hemisphere rugby’ debate – a debate that will grow ever more fierce over the next season as the European Leagues determine what to do with the Heineken Cup.
So is there anything that domestic leagues can do to stall this pattern of players moving across the channel – a pattern that in the close season alone has seen Jamie Roberts, Dan Lydiate and Jonny Sexton move to warmer climes. Well, it was at least heartening this week to see that Toby Faletau has signed a contract extension with the Newport Gwent Dragons. This follows the news from earlier this year that Cardiff Blues had successfully staved off interest for winger Alex Cuthbert by securing his long-term services. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule and, worryingly, these signings were not helped by the recently announced £1 million additional funding from the WRU. It seems both players were convinced to stay because of the benefits to their international career rather than money. At the end of the day, the individual player’s desire to put their international career firmly ahead of their club one could be the main hope for the Celtic and English leagues. If a player is open to a move then money will always be the determining factor. With the contracts of Welsh stars Leigh Halfpenny, Adam Jones and Sam Warburton all up for negotiation in the coming months, our domestic leagues are not out of the woods yet.
But what do you think? What’s the solution to the main issue affecting European rugby at the moment? Should we move towards a season-long European league (meaning greater revenue for Celtic and English teams)? Should the home unions impose a Kiwi-style rule that international players must play in their home country? Or should we allow market forces to determine the future of the northern hemisphere game? Comments and answers below as always.
I’m off for a sing. If Dan Carter is an alien, expect comment on that when the blog returns in two week’s time.