We shall no longer, it seems, have a straightforward league with 11 home games and 11 away ones. Instead there is talk of a split into two seven-club conferences, and then in the second half of the season something different. Fans are likely to be confused. “Conferences” are dearer to administrators than supporters.
Yet, unsatisfactory as this looks, the reason for the expansion is clear and understandable. In one word, it’s money. TV revenues bring in about £12 million at present, or a million to each club. This leaves them very poor relations of English and French clubs. Tickets sales bring in more, but they are low except in Dublin, Limerick and Belfast. It’s pleasing that Glasgow can now almost always fill Scotstoun, but the capacity there is just under 8,000. Attendance at Edinburgh’s matches remains pathetic.
Without more money coming in, it will be ever harder to compete with English and French clubs in the European competitions, harder also to retain players.
At present the SRU has to let them go when demand comes calling. In the last few years Richie Gray has departed to France (Castres first, then Toulouse), Greig Laidlaw to Gloucester (now on to Clermont-Auvergne), Sean Maitland to Saracens, Tim Visser to Harlequins, David Denton to Bath, Matt Scott to Gloucester, Ruaridh Jackson first to Wasps, then Harlequins. This summer Gordon Reid is joining London Irish and Josh Strauss Sale. That’s more than half a Scotland team. And the word is that at the end of the coming season Finn Russell will be off to Montpellier.
Now it’s always said that, first, this gives these players opportunity and incentive to improve because they are joining clubs where they aren’t necessarily assured of a first-team place; some take the opportunity, some don’t. Secondly, the exodus is defended on the grounds that it removes a possible logjam which restricts opportunities for younger players. This is true, a consequence, partly, of our inability to support more than two professional clubs.
Players who move to England or France may indeed become better players. On the other hand, the SRU loses all control of them. As a result the national team is at a disadvantage. English and French clubs will release players only as mandated by the IRB. This period doesn’t include the two fallow weekends during the Six Nations.
In England the Rugby Union has an agreement with Premier Rugby which ensures players are free of club duty throughout the tournament (unless the England coach chooses to send a player, usually one recovering from injury, back to his club to get game-time.) But this agreement doesn’t of course apply to Scottish (or Welsh, Irish, French or Italian) players. So, for example, Saracens may choose to call on Duncan Taylor and Maitland for these international-free weekends during the Six Nations, but can’t field Owen Farrell or Maro Itoje.
Irish Rugby is at present strong enough to stipulate that players who choose to leave Ireland for an English or French club won’t be selected for the national team – though an exception was made when Jonny Sexton was playing in France; Scotland isn’t.
Money, as I say, talks, and now talks louder than ever. We can’t even retain the best players imported to strengthen our Pro clubs. They are, of course, free to move at the end of a contract, but now they may even be bought out with a year (or perhaps longer) remaining on their contract, as was the case with the outstanding Leone Nakarawa when Racing 92 came calling.
I’ve often said that we have to run very hard merely in order not to lose ground and fall behind our rivals. As more and more money, much of it from TV, some from very rich club owners, pours into the English and French club game, this becomes more and more difficult. The same is true in Wales and, to a slightly lesser extent in Ireland, also of course in Italy. This is why the Guinness Pro12 is so eager to expand, to acquire a bigger TV audience and bring in more revenue.
“Eager” may be an inadequate word, “desperate” more to the point. Hence the welcome extended to South Africa’s two weakest franchises, which were in risk of being closed down when the failing Super Rugby competition is re-modelled again. Whether two clubs which don’t attract the best South African players will strengthen the league and improve its quality is one question; whether the dog’s breakfast of the reformed league structure will appeal to fans is another, and whether it will do anything to enable us to retain our best players here with Glasgow and Edinburgh perhaps the most important of all.