Flying is rugby’s dirty little secret no one will address

The addition of the Southern Kings and Toyota Cheetahs has increased the Pro14's air miles. Picutre: Johan Pretorius/Gallo Images/Getty Images
The addition of the Southern Kings and Toyota Cheetahs has increased the Pro14's air miles. Picutre: Johan Pretorius/Gallo Images/Getty Images
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She copped a bit of stick, Dame Emma Thompson, after flying 5,000 plus miles from Los Angeles to London to front an Extinction Rebellion protest.

Although airline travel contributes only 2 per cent of all carbon emissions across the globe, that one journey alone was responsible for adding 6.47 metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere and so adding to the global warming that most scientists now accept is taking place.

Climate isn’t the only thing that is changing; popular opinion is being nudged along with it. Extinction Rebellion are on the extreme wing of the new green movement but then the centre of the debate is shifting beneath our feet. Back in 2013, 60 per cent of Brits polled stated that they were “very” or “fairly” concerned about climate change. In a poll taken immediately after the Extinction Rebellion protest that figure rose to 80 per cent. The number who declared themselves “not at all concerned” halved over the same period, from 10 per cent to 5 per cent.

Extinction Rebellion are not in government but the UK parliament has still declared a climate emergency. The one-time radicals are becoming mainstream, their finger is on the zeitgeist, we should question just how often we fly, why we fly and ask if it’s really necessary? Which brings us to the Guinness Pro14 and it’s expansion to South Africa.

We understand the why. The league lives in the shadow of its two rich cousins, the Premiership and Top14, and they needed extra money to keep hold of their best players (not that Scotland worries too much).

They got an immediate injection of £6.5 million from SARU for giving their two teams a home. Add in an extra chunk of cash for the television rights in the republic and you can see why the cash-strapped Celtic unions chose to look south.

But the Celtic unions are no longer reduced to scrabbling down the back of the sofa for small change. They are wealthy, or at least they will be once they have accepted one of the six suitors that are eyeing a slice of the lucrative Six Nations pie.

CVC Partners remain favourites and the latest mumble suggests that the unions will split the tournament seven ways, with the six unions owning one share each with the seventh going to CVC, at a price.

If the Pro14 has a bad flying habit, Super Rugby are the real junkies. It was in 2016 that the Sunwolves flew an exhausting 49,881 miles in one season (the circumference of the earth is less than 25,000 miles). Someone with too much time on their hands worked out that they had spent 113 hours on planes and, as my physiotherapist friend never tires of reminding me, “sitting is the new smoking”.

Super Rugby may travel ridiculous distances but at least they attract a crowd once they arrive. When Leinster, Pro14 and Champions Cup title holders, played the South Kings on 4 November at NMU Stadium in Port Elizabeth, they did so in front of 1,142 spectators.

That was just the worst of a long list of low numbers – 2,473 watched the Kings play the Scarlets, 3,160 watched when the Kings hosted the Warriors and the Cheetahs are not much better; 4,700 were present when they hosted Glasgow the following week.

So Glasgow’s squad of 27-odd players plus support staff, let’s call it 35 people all in, flew a total of 11,952 miles (round trip), which is 418,320 man-miles of air travel for 160 minutes of rugby. That works out at 2,614 man-miles in the air per minute of rugby played and these figures don’t include any internal flights – Port Elizabeth to Bloemfontein is 3½ hours – because my head started hurting. Ignore the climate, this is bonkers from any perspective.

The real issue with the current league isn’t why only 1,142 fans show up to watch the Southern Kings play Leinster, the real question is why anyone bothers turning up at all? The pertinent question isn’t, “who will win between Zebre and the Southern Kings?” Ask instead, “who the heck cares?”

Extinction Rebellion want to ban all air travel except for emergencies which seems like a step too far. No one is suggesting that Tiger Woods should row across the Atlantic to attend this year’s Open Championship. The course will be full when the Claret Jug is up for grabs at Royal Portrush and the television audience numbered in the millions. The Pro14 cannot make the same claim.

And if the financial raison’ d’etre for the South African expansion no longer exists, why not contract to a more meaningful league. The old Celtic League enjoyed a proximity both geographic and cultural in nature, throwing three natural bedfellows together, if only after Wales eventually accepted the end to their traditional English fixtures. The longest flight is no more than 75 minutes compared to the 12-odd hours for the schlep to South Africa.

The league would also regain some of its integrity, with Edinburgh playing Glasgow home and away rather than shoehorning in an artificial third fixture aimed solely at money making with no thought for the integrity of the competition. Playing Glasgow three times also undermines Edinburgh chances of Champions Cup qualification.

A smaller, ten-team competition would enable the league to set new standards in player welfare, another item at the very top of the public agenda. While players might earn more in France or England, at least some of that shortfall would be recouped because, with fewer demands, players in the Celtic League should enjoy longer careers.

And we can rest easy in the knowledge that we have done our little bit for the planet.