In rugby terms, what Sonny Bill Williams plans to do to earn a crust for the next while makes no sense whatsoever. Children in New Zealand dream of being good enough to one day wear the silver fern at Test level just the once, let alone be good enough to be the presumptive starting 12 as he clearly is.
Yet in money terms, his move makes absolutely perfect sense. We can vilify his agent Khoder Nasser all we want, but is he really the big bad wolf in this fairytale? In any other realm of business wouldn’t we just say he negotiated the best possible deal for his client?
And as I look around the headlines on this Monday, it’s as if the rugby world in general is going “Ah, yeah, well, what can you do?” The way I see it, there’s plenty.
In actual fact it’s not really this Sonny Bill news that has me up in arms. Even though the media is reporting it to death today, the deal has actually been known about for weeks, since no doubt Nasser orchestrated a leak or six to help along his negotiations.
In a few weeks, the inaugural “Rugby Championship” will kick off. No doubt this will be spun as an historic event for the game of rugby union, where it will brag that it is now “progressive” enough to “allow” Argentina to play in an annual tournament of significance.
Sure, when you look back over the code’s history, this will indeed be a big deal. But when the Pumas start their first match on August 18th in Cape Town, they will most likely be denied their marquee player Felipe Contepomi, which is utterly ludicrous. The IRB claim to have done everything they can to ensure the best players will take part in the new four-nation tournament but clearly this is not the case.
Test rugby should be first and foremost for the players. I’m sorry, but this is pretty much a no-brainer. Sure, the bread and butter money comes from the clubs playing from week to week, but the best way to market the sport globally is via the internationals.
So it stands to reason that if the game’s best players are being lured elsewhere when the major international competitions are being held, there is clearly something wrong, and does this mean the sport should just lurch on as it has done shrugging its shoulders or does it need to take some significant action?
I believe the transition from the amateur era to the professional one was completely botched. Not that it was ever going to be easy, mind you. But the structure of the game as it stands today only makes sense when you realise the foundation it was built on.
Rugby is not a world game as it is organised right now. It is a sport for nine nations, with one being reluctantly added this year. The rest of the planet are expected to accept this status quo and send a few teams to the World Cup every four years to make up the numbers and then get back into their box marked “minnows”.
And I almost wouldn’t mind if the nine/ten nations acted with any sense of uniformity to bring the game forward. Instead we have individual unions, all terrified of giving up their power, all doing their own thing, pretending to be united under bigger organizations Six Nations Rugby Ltd, ERC & SANZAR, with the IRB supposedly being the glue that holds it all together.
Simply put, if Felipe doesn’t play in the Rugby Championship, there is no glue.
We can’t just blame the blazers, either. As fans from the “elite” nations, we must take some ourselves, happy as we are banging on about the sport’s history and traditions, all the time assuming that there are certain systems and formats that are “untouchable”.
Heaven forbid the Six Nations considers promotion & relegation or even takes place at a different stage of the season. And imagine the ridicule someone would get suggesting that perhaps Lions tours weren’t all they’re cracked up to be since they only feature five nations (not to mention just two actual teams) at a time.
Or what about the row over the Heineken Cup … fans from the Celtic Nations were proud to learn of their unions standing up to the big money clubs from England and France, but if the Pro12 goes on dominating the tournament for the next few years as could well be the case, will it really have the same value?
The structure (or lack thereof) of the European rugby season is a constant bugbear of mine, but it’s only a small part of what’s affecting the global game. The way I see it, we have two choices : go back to being an amateur sport or take our heads out of the sand and be willing to restructure things in such a way that the best players when fit can take part in the matches that matter.
That won’t happen as long as the unions continue to be allowed dance to their own tune. The IRFU for example have done an excellent job working within the confines of the status quo since the game went pro, but even here the cracks are beginning to show whenever contract deadlines draw near.
Meanwhile the Welsh seem happy to let the regions stagnate while their top players parlez the Francais…a policy that certainly hasn’t seen cobwebs grow in their trophy cabinet so it’s not like they’re going to change anytime soon.
And don’t start me on England! Pardon the pun but it was a bit “rich” of their clubs to be moaning about how the Heineken Cup is structured when they have such a hard time working out who is allowed to play in their own Premiership!
So to summarize, the way things stand, there really is no rugby “union” to speak of. I love the game to bits and will always enjoy watching when its being played at any level (I’m only on this rant because I have no Leinster/Ireland match to review!) but it’s in the days that fall in between when I read stories that make me concerned for the future.
And of course it’s not just the news of Sonny Bill & Dr Phil that has me ranting…but even if I were to make this article into a novel that included things like poor referee development, unions having control over discipline for their own players and the return of 3-match summer test series to name but a few, they would still fall under the same general heading.
I firmly believe the money to keep Sonny Bill in an All Black jersey is out there. It’s just that in return, rather than make a song and dance about letting one country join the SANZAR/Six Nations table every decade or so, we need to say that if the big bucks are in countries like Japan, the raw talent is in countries like Georgia & Samoa, and even the fan base is in countries like Madagascar, then surely they can play too.
I also firmly believe that there are people involved in running the game smart enough (don’t laugh!) to sit down and work out a calendar that allows players play for their clubs regardless of hemisphere AND win international caps when they matter most. Who knows, maybe even some of the precious traditions can be protected too.
Rather than living in constant fear of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, maybe we can put both in a new tub that won’t leak so much.