More trials won’t solve Premiership’s financial problems

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Anyone watching the English Premiership this season might be tempted to ask: what’s wrong with professional club rugby?

The answer is that from a show standpoint, which is often mistakenly considered the only part of the product that matters, not much. There were a lot of thrills, with lots of tries and several games until the last game of the game.

Take last week’s thrilling encounter between Exeter and Harlequins. The Chiefs took a 31-7 lead before halftime and Quins fought back with a Joe Marchant try that put Quins 42-38 with just minutes to play. The Chiefs then raced the length of the pitch to score a winning try through Christ Tshiunza.

This year, the competition for the top four spots is shaping up to be as open as I can remember in the last ten years. You can make a decent case for around eight teams to grab one of those spots and only be sure Bath won’t be close to the endgame.

Who wouldn’t want to watch rugby like this?

The answer to this question is probably no one who is already a rugby fan. Unfortunately, this is only part of this question because there are other important considerations.

The question of quality must be examined. Take the twelve tries in said Exeter v Quins game – are they evidence of heightened ambition and execution in attack, or do they reflect poor defence? It might not matter in terms of pure entertainment, and you might wonder why does it matter how the thrills are generated?

This is important because when English teams play in Europe they will face higher caliber opponents who will give you less time and space. Extremely enjoyable games will not prepare teams and players for the next level unless accompanied by an increased level of skill.

Acquiring the means to move from national club rugby to European club rugby has another facet. It is vital for players to make the even greater transition to international rugby. Very few players can improve their performance from the rugby cub at work to the suffocating maelstrom of test rugby. Even with the few that do, it’s rarely automatic.

Players need the constant challenge of top-flight rugby to get themselves in the right physical and mental condition from which to handle internationals. It’s not good enough to cope, you need your whole team to pursue this most basic requirement. Coaches want and need to work at higher levels of intensity, where thought and action are almost reflexive.

The Premiership cannot assume that if they build it people will come

I’m sure there are club owners in England, and certainly in France, who only see rugby in terms of what’s good for their club. They have the money to fund success and if their domestic league proves popular with spectators and viewers, that’s enough.

This type of thinking ignores the crucial link between international matches and club matches. We are not in the same situation as the Premier League, where money and fan interest are guaranteed just by being in that league. They don’t even have to worry so much about the base game in England as they can buy enough overseas talent to fill their squads, without there being any real negative consequences. Of course, their fans would probably like to have national players, but that’s not a requirement.

Minority sports need all levels to be successful. Club rugby must have thriving international rugby and vice versa. In purely monetary terms, the payments made by the RFU to clubs for the release of their players form a significant part of a club’s income. England must have sustainable clubs, producing domestically qualified players, to have any chance of international success.

I feel the quality of the Premiership has improved, but there is still a lot of improvement that can and must take place. This is why the recent setbacks at Worcester and Wasps need a solution that works in the broadest sense. A reorganization that only works at one level will not solve all the necessary problems.

The Premiership cannot assume that if they build it people will come. Of course, it’s best to have an exciting proposition to present before paying fans and broadcasters, but that in itself won’t increase the numbers in the required order. It took almost two decades to double attendance and clubs still have serious shortfalls. Costs, team sizes and league format all need to be addressed and not piecemeal.

Unless deep reforms are made, the Premiership will not fulfill its potential and English rugby, from grassroots football to international level, needs it to do so.

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