Donal Lenihan: Around the world, rugby was never in greater need of progressive people

With no rugby action for the foreseeable future, I’m about to park my pen for the summer. With the professional game facing its biggest financial crisis since the decision to go open in August 1995, one wonders what the landscape will look like when I return to these pages in September. 

With the immediate focus switching to the renewal of action in New Zealand in just over two weeks’ time, the next few months pose significant challenges for those tasked with getting the game up and running once again on this side of the world.

The Heineken Champions Cup 

Last Saturday’s scheduled Champions Cup final in Marseilles was earmarked as a day for special celebration for the 25th anniversary of the tournament. The Coronavirus saw to that. 

For all kinds of reasons, not least financial, European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) are determined to finish out the quarter, semi and final stages of the 2019/20 season over successive weekends in October.

It’s an ambitious plan.

With three French clubs in the last eight, issues surrounding travel will have to be tackled. By that stage sufficient rugby will have been played in New Zealand and Australia to flag potential issues that are not clearly apparent right now.

One of the most bizarre issues facing EPCR surrounds the potential make-up of the Saracens squad to face Leinster in Dublin in what was the most eagerly awaited of the four quarter-finals. 

As a consequence of their salary cap breaches in domestic rugby, Saracens are relegated to the second tier of English domestic rugby.

In their efforts to reduce salary levels, at least 15 internationals have already left or in the process of leaving the club including Liam Williams, Will Skelton, George Kruis, Sean Maitland, Duncan Taylor, Nick Tomkins and Rhys Carre.

Others like Ben Earls, Jack Singleton and possibly Maro Itoje have either gone or will go on loan deals for twelve months in the hope that Saracens will be promoted back to the Gallagher Premiership in 2021/22. In total up to 18 players, including Munster’s new signing Matt Gallagher, will be gone.

So what squad represents Saracens in that quarter-final: the players who were registered for this season’s tournament or the ones left behind. 

We have a potentially ridiculous situation where Saracens could be involved on three fronts between July and October if this season’s Gallagher Premiership resumes, the early rounds of next season's Greene King IPA Championship and the knockout phase of the Heineken Champions Cup.

As for next season’s Champions Cup the fact that the remainder of the Top 14 in France was cancelled has left clubs like Toulouse outside the top six and technically out of next season’s tournament. 

The French clubs aren’t having that and will only participate if they can have eight clubs due to the French government’s call to suspend all live sport in the country until September.

EPCR appear willing to compromise on this and the likelihood is that the pool stage next season will involve 24 teams, eight each from the Guinness Pro14, the Gallagher Premiership and the Top 14, potentially located in eight pools of three.

That would result in only four pool games as opposed to the normal six with the pool winners advancing automatically to the knockout phase. 

There is a suggestion that the quarter and semi-finals could be contested on a home and away basis which would be an interesting tweak.

With the unions determined to cram as many internationals as possible into the September-November window, a major conflict is brewing over the prospect of staging some of those in October, a period designated for European club rugby.

With the respective unions and EPCR both having broadcasting deals to satisfy, compromise will have to be found with the club owners in England and France once again drawn into conflict with the international game and the strong possibility that they won’t release their players. 

That is why they have been invited to the negotiating table (see below).


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The Guinness PRO14

Just about the best news the Guinness PRO14 could have received was confirmation last Friday that the mooted investment by CVC Capital Partners for a 28% interest in the league was complete.

At a time of great financial hardship, an estimated €34m cash injection for the IRFU, spread out over the next three years as opposed to five as had been originally proposed, could not have been come at a better time. 

The focus now shifts towards finding a way to complete this season’s PRO14 and devise a plan to deal with the structure for next season.

Confirmation, revealed in this column two weeks ago, that the PRO14 wished to resume with a series of local derbies in Ireland, Wales and Scotland in August in a bid to identify a top two in each conference with a view to staging two semi-finals and a final in September, came last Friday.

In the circumstances that’s about as good as the organisers can hope for. Right now, Leinster and Ulster are in pole position to top Conference A while Edinburgh and Munster should emerge from Conference B. 

If two Irish provinces make the final then logic dictates it should be staged at the Aviva Stadium.

The bigger issue is how to structure next season given the fact that six different sets of Covid-19 government regulations exist across the participating teams. 

The two South African sides, the Southern Kings and the Cheetahs, pose the biggest challenge.

The organisers are examining a scenario where the two South African squads would set up camp in Ireland for a period and play all their away games in one block against the Irish provinces. 

They would then do likewise at various times in Wales, Scotland and Italy, thus reducing the amount of overseas travel while also hosting large blocks of home games in a row.

That’s not ideal and neither is the fact that, just as CVC have come on board, it’s likely that all the top-ranking international players will play little or no games in the pre-Christmas phase of the PRO14 as all the respective unions hope to play between five and seven internationals between September and November.

Given that CVC Partners are also at an advanced stage of negotiations for a similar equity stake in the Guinness Six Nations, that is something they are more than aware of and, in the circumstances, could live with in the short term as they seek to build relationships with the unions.


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The global international schedule

After years of indecision and bickering, the catastrophic state of rugby’s finances worldwide - a consequence of Covid-19 - has brought the warring factions to their senses.

The IRFU are already down four tests due to the postponed Six Nations games against Italy and France along with the two-test tour of Australia in July. 

If the November series against world champions South Africa, Australia and Japan were also to fall by the wayside, IRFU CEO Philip Browne confirmed last Friday that losses of up to €20m would be incurred with their reserves severely impacted.

Every union finds themselves in the same position. In times of crisis, common sense generally prevails. Talk of a global season and an expanded international competition incorporating results from the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship in the southern hemisphere was firmly knocked back on this side of the world last year.

As with all restructures, there has to be give and take on both sides. The picture being painted here is that the SANZAAR nations were looking for a way to plunder the riches generated by the Six Nations Championship.

The New Zealand rugby union sees huge inequities with regard to the monies generated when they tour here in November in comparison to the paltry returns they receive from reciprocal visits by our international squads down under in the summer.

To help compensate for that, a Lions tour every four years offers rugby down south a massive cash injection. The problem for New Zealand, Australia and South Africa however is that this only impacts their individual coffers once in a 12-year cycle.

The global game will suffer irreparable damage if the Wallabies and the All Blacks find it impossible to keep their best players at home and become a diluted force on the international stage, something that has already happened to Australia.

The ARU were on the brink of bankruptcy even before the impact of the Coronavirus and became the first union to access the emergency fund of €92m provided by World Rugby with an aid package of €8.4m already requested.

Bill Beaumont recently won the fight to retain the chairmanship of World Rugby for another four-year term over the more radical Agustin Pichot and has promised much.

Now is the time to deliver and circumstances dictate that there will never be a better opportunity for compromise.

The key element here is that the professional clubs and leagues have a voice.

Confirmation from World Rugby last week that “all parties, including member unions, international competitions, professional club competitions and International Rugby Players, will be involved in the continued evaluation of potential contingency options with a view to achieving an aligned calendar for the remainder of the year” was therefore encouraging.

Personally, I don’t think the Six Nations has any reason to fear change. I see very little wrong with delaying the start of the tournament by a month, running it in March and April concurrently with the Rugby Championship. If that happens SANZAAR are making a far bigger concession by bringing their tournament forward by three months.


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The Six Nations has evolved, albeit slowly, since its foundation in 1883 when it was based around the four home nations. France joined in 1910 and Italy in 2000. 

When I played in the Five Nations Championship the opening rounds were in mid-January, often in appalling weather.

A number of years ago it was pushed out to February and nobody objected. If anything, delaying the start until March will only lend itself to playing in better conditions, avoiding the type of horrific weather that made the Scotland v England game in Murrayfield last March a complete lottery.

Moving our “summer tours” down under to October will also result in better weather for those series and give the domestic European leagues less interruptions to their season. 

If anything it should drastically improve matters with two sizable uninterrupted blocks to run the domestic leagues and European competition.

The final plus with a global season comes every four years as every country would enter a World Cup tournament with the same amount of rugby played. 

That would be a massive help to our preparations as the European countries are constantly cramming to be ready for the tournament in September with the domestic season shutting down between June and August.

The other big debate surrounds what shape rugby will take if and when it returns without a vaccine or medication to combat Covid-19. When I wrote last week about the excessive time being eaten up by the scrum formation, I wasn't expecting reports that World Rugby, admittedly due to the implications of the Coronavirus, were considering the temporary banning of the scrum and maul with the prospect of lineouts becoming unopposed.

Quite frankly I’d prefer no game than one sanitised to that degree. It’s like asking inter-county hurlers to play a refined game with hockey sticks instead of hurleys. It already appears that the players are against such proposals. No wonder. How long would it take for props to be replaced by two additional back rowers and for the 6’9” lock to be told to stay at home.

What I could live with, in the short term, is the suggestion that there would be no reset of a collapsed scrum with the referee awarding a free kick instead. That’s great as long as the official gives the free kick to the right side!


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Domestic club rugby 

The IRFU will do well to remember that less than 5% of the rugby playing population in this country perform at the professional level. There isn’t a rugby club in the country that hasn’t been affected by the pandemic from both a financial and welfare perspective.

The clubs need direction, support and a vision of what shape the new season is likely to take. Change in the way the club game is administered is badly needed. 

If anything, the pandemic has served to highlight the need for the professional arm of the game to be run separately to its amateur counterpart, two distinct operations operating under the IRFU umbrella.

The IRFU website profiles the 25 members of its committee. All have come from clubland, have contributed handsomely to the game at a variety of levels in the past and currently to various different IRFU committees.

The management committee is the most high profile of these given that, along with the Professional Game Board, it is tasked with running the professional arm of the game. 

That committee includes eight members from the wider IRFU committee, supplemented by a number of full-time professional staff including the CEO Philip Browne and Director of Rugby David Nucifora.

Most at committee level aspire to become as close as possible to the national team but the professional game doesn’t require that level of input from the amateur ranks. 

The time has come for a strong cohort of the committee members to be tasked specifically with administering the amateur game and representing the best interests of the clubs nationally.

In highlighting last week the financial challenges facing the IRFU, Browne struck a chord when declaring that the union was “spending tomorrow’s money today” in order to keep things afloat. 

While the professional side of the house is the immediate priority, any further dilution of the club game and its ability to attract young boys and girls will not serve the game well in the longer term.

From the club's perspective, having Browne highlight once again that an annual sum of between €700-800k - the yearly rent saved as a result of purchasing the union’s headquarters from the net sales proceeds of lands sold at Newlands Cross - is great news for the amateur game.

What is required now is a transparent plan for where and how that money is going to be invested in the amateur game on an annual basis. Currently much of it flows towards employing development officers with a view to increasing participation numbers at various levels. That in turn leads to potentially bigger grants from Sport Ireland.

It is also proposed to invest in the development of rugby hubs around the country which sounds like a good initiative and one that clubs in the respective catchment areas should be encouraged to become actively involved in.

The showcase for the club game is the All-Ireland League and that’s in need of a revamp. 

Clubs in the top two divisions, who play a key role in the development of the future professionals currently involved in the provincial academies, should receive grants for providing specialist coaching, quality strength and conditioning and state-of-the-art analysis which would contribute to raising the standards further.

The problem here is that with 50 clubs, spread countrywide over the five AIL divisions, you are never going to find common ground. Sadly, it has become a race to the bottom. 

The IRFU need to take the initiative here and stop sitting on the AIL fence. Serious leadership is required on all fronts.


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