Crossing Codes

Well, it was rugby last time and it’ll be rugby this time next week, so I might as well buck the trend and start talking a little more about rugby in preparation for the upcoming Lions tour (anyone who wants to hear my views regarding Christian Wade/Shane Williams’ callup will have to make themselves heard over the sound of me clapping with glee at the prospect of a bit of magic from either). However, today I will not be confining myself solely to my preferred variant of rugby union, but will instead be analysing its relationship to the other code; rugby league.

To tell the story of rugby league, we must travel back to 1895, just 22 years after the official founding of the game of rugby football. As befits a sport named after and originating from a public school, rugby at the time was very much a rich man’s game, particularly in the south of Britain, and such people could afford to live the amateur dream; where the game was not influenced by such crass things as money, but by honour and other such proud words. Indeed, as I explained last time, this attitude of die-hard defence of amateurism would persist in the union game for nearly the next century, and as late as 1995, as the game lay on the very verge of going professional, Will Carling was stripped of the England captaincy for (quite accurately) referring to the board of the RFU as ’57 old farts’.

However, way back in the late 19th century the game was just starting to take off in the north of England as well, where ex-public schoolboys were rather thin on the ground. This was working-class country, and rugby here was a working class game; for these men, amateurism was a hard task, and every game they played on a Saturday was another three hours where they weren’t earning much-needed cash. As such, a group of northern clubs proposed to the RFU that, with the reasonable income generated from the spectators at matches, players could be ‘recompensed for loss of time’; a reasonable request, one might assume. However, the old farts took the suggestion badly, not only rejecting it out of hand  but issuing a dictum that banned teams from playing at grounds where an entrance fee was charged for spectators. This, to put it mildly, did not go down well with the northern clubs, and on the 29th of August that year, 22 clubs formed the Northern Union; an entirely separate officiating organisation. Over 200 clubs would join the Northern Union within the next decade and a half (some argue this did the union code the world of good, stripping England of much of its skilled player base and making the international playing field more even), and gradually they also began fiddling with the laws, fitting them to their liking. The biggest changes came in 1906, when the number of men per team was reduced from 15 to 13 (dropping the flankers to give the attacking side more room; an idea being voiced by some in the union code at the moment too), and when the ruck was abolished, being replaced instead with rugby league’s characteristic ‘writhe around on the floor until the ref shouts “move”‘.

This revolutionised league’s playing structure, doing away with the dull scrummaging and mauling that dominated union at the time in favour of a faster, more flowing game. Gone was the suffering of the union winger, doomed to forever hang around getting cold and hoping for a pass or two; backs became the focus of the league game, as handling skills became prioritised over strength and wingers were encouraged to go looking for the ball, to make themselves useful. Games became far higher-scoring than in union (where 3-0 wins were not uncommon at the time), and this was only enhanced when league became a summer game, played on hard, fast grounds rather than getting bogged down in the mud and rain. Add to that the fact that league players could get paid to play, and it’s not surprising that many union players chose to switch codes (much to the chagrin of their respective unions, who would frequently ban them from ever playing the union code again). All in all, for much of the 20th century, rugby league could easily argue to be on top of its union cousin.

However, when union (finally, amidst much chaos and complaining) turned professional in 1995, the tide began to turn. In spite of everything, union had, particularly in the latter half of the century, maintained a bigger player and supporter base than league, and much of it in the affluent south; this meant that it was able to cash in on professionalism to an extent that league couldn’t match, and the union authorities had finally made concessions on the laws that were conducive to a far more spectator-friendly game. The tide began to turn. Union got richer (especially when businessmen like Francis Baron started to weigh in) and took back a few stars who had gone over to league. Then, it started poaching a few league stars of its own; former rugby league internationals like Lote Tuqiri, Jason Robinson & Andy Farrell began making their considerable presence felt as union started to wave around fat payslips and an approach to professionalism that has begun to take over from league in terms of intensity. Just recently, Sonny Bill Williams (who has just returned to league after a few years in an All Blacks shirt) has said that the approach that became second nature to him in union has marked him out in terms of professionalism in a league environment. As evidenced in this article, winner of the ‘most needlessly provocative title in a sporting article’ award.

So, rugby league then; a game conceived in rebellion to the arrogance of the wealthy southerners, it is in many ways the perfect embodiment of England’s north-south divide. Thankfully, said divide has (to me at least) receded somewhat in recent years, and so has some of the animosity between the two codes. This has lead some to propose a somewhat radical new idea; that the two codes combine, returning union to a single sport united by the best of both worlds. Will it happen in the forseeable future? Of course not; league is a proud game well capable of standing on its own two feet, and is blessed with some of the most passionate fans in sport, who I don’t think would take kindly to the identity of their sport fading away. Not only that, but trying to create a game appreciated by both parties would be a messy old business, even if the conception of the IRB has made union slightly more accepting than if negotiations were headed by unions quite as… vociferous as the RFU. Nonetheless, the debate does highlight an important issue; both codes have an awful lot to learn from one another, and union in particular has utilised the skills of former league talents both on the field and in coaching. With both games in serious trouble in places, particularly in today’s economic climate, not making use of such cooperation could prove very costly indeed.

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The Plight of Welsh Rugby

It being a rugby time of year, I thought I might once again cast my gaze over the world of rugby in general. Rugby is the sport I love, and the coming of professionalism has seen it become bigger, faster, and more of a spectacle than ever before. The game itself has, to my mind at least, greatly benefited from the coming of the professional age; but with professionalism comes money, and where there’s money there are problems.

Examples of how financial problems have ruined teams abound all over the world, from England (lead by the financial powerhouse of the RFU) to New Zealand (where player salary caps are, if I remember correctly, set at £50,000 to avoid bankrupting themselves). But the worst examples are to be found in Britain, specifically in Wales (and, to a lesser extent, Scotland).

Back in the day, Wales was the powerhouse of northern hemisphere rugby. Clubs like Bridgend, Pontypool and Llanelli, among others, churned out international-level stars at a quite astounding rate for such relatively small clubs. Amidst the valleys, rugby was a way of life, something that united whole communities who would turn out to watch their local clubs in fierce local derbies. And the results followed; despite England and France enjoying the benefit of far superior playing numbers, Wales were among the most successful sides in the then Five Nations Championship, Welsh sides were considered the major challenge for touring southern hemisphere sides, and the names of such Welsh greats as JPR Williams, Barry John, Phil Bennett and, most famous of the lot, Gareth Edwards, have resonated down the ages. Or at least the nostalgic rugby press tells me, since I wasn’t really in a position to notice at the time.

However, professionalism demands that clubs pay their players if they wish to keep hold of them, and that requires them to generate a not insignificant degree of income. Income requires fans, and more importantly a large number of fans who are willing and able to travel to games and pay good money for tickets and other paraphernalia, and this requires a team to be based in an area of sufficient population and wealth. This works best when clubs are based in and around large cities; but since rugby is a game centred around rolling around in a convenient acre of mud it does not always translate well to a city population. As such, many rugby heartlands tend to be fairly rural, and thus present major issues when considering a professional approach to the game. This was a major problem in Scotland; their greatest talent pool came from the borders region, home of such famous clubs as Melrose and Galashiels, but when the game went pro in 1995 the area only had a population of around 100,000 and was declining economically. For the SRU to try and support all their famous clubs would have been nigh-on impossible, since there are only so many potential fans to go around those many with proud rugby heritage in such a relatively small area, and to pick one club over another would have been a move far too dangerous to contemplate. So they opted for a regional model; here, the old clubs would form their own leagues to act as a talent pool for regional sides who would operate as big, centrally contracted, professional outfits. The idea was that everyone, regardless of their club of origin, would come together to back their region, the proud sum of its many parts; but in reality many consider regional sides to be rather soulless outfits without the heritage or locality to drum up support. In Scotland they formed four regions originally, but the Caledonia Reds (covering the vast, lowly populated area north of the major cities) were disbanded after just a season and the Border Reivers, sprung from Soctland’s rugby heartland, went in 2005 after poor results and worse attendances. Now only Edinburgh and Glasgow are left, doing what they can in places with all the money and none of the heritage.

Ireland also adopted the regional model, but there it was far less of a problem. Ireland (which for rugby purposes incorporates Northern Ireland as well) is a larger, more densely populated country than Scotland, and actually has four major cities to base its four regional sides in (Limerick, Galway, Belfast and Dublin, whose potential to grow into a rugby powerhouse, as the largest conurbation of people in Europe without a major football side, is huge). Not only that, but relatively few Irish clubs had garnered the fame and prestige of their fellow Celts, so the regions didn’t have so many heritage problems. And its shown; Ireland is now the most successful country in the Celtic League (or RaboDirect Pro12, to satisfy the sponsors), Leinster have won 3 Heineken Cups in 5 years, and just four years ago, the national side achieved their country’s second-ever Grand Slam.

But it was in Wales that rugby had the farthest to fall, and fall it did; without the financial, geographical and club structure advantages of England or the virgin potential of Ireland, Welsh fortunes have been topsy-turvy. Initially five regions were set up, but the Celtic Warriors folded after just a few seasons and left only four, covering the four south coast cities of Llanelli (Scarlets), Swansea (Ospreys), Newport (Dragons) and Cardiff. Unfortunately, these cities are not huge and are all very close to one another, giving them a small catchment area and very little sense of regional rivalry; since they are all, apparently, part of the same region. Their low population means the clubs struggle to support themselves from the city population, but without any sense of historic or community identity they find it even harder to build a dedicated fan base; and with the recent financial situation, with professional rugby living through its first depression as player wages continue to rise, these finances are getting stretched ever thinner.

Not only that, but all the old clubs, whilst they still exist, are losing out on the deal too. Whilst the prestige and heritage are still there, with the WRU’s and the rugby world’s collective focus on the regional teams’ top-level performance nobody cares about the clubs currently tussling it out in the Principality Premiership, and many of these communities have lost their connection with clubs that once very much belonged to the community. This loss of passion for the game on a local level may partly be inspired by the success of football clubs such as Swansea, enjoying an impressive degree of Premier League success. Many of these local clubs also have overspent in pursuit of success in the professional era, and with dwindling crowds this has come back to bite; some prestigious clubs have gone into administration and tumbled down the leagues, tarnishing a reputation and dignity that is, for some, the best thing they have left. Even the Welsh national team, so often a source of pride no matter what befalls the club game, has suffered over the last year, only recently breaking an eight-match losing streak that drew stark attention to the Welsh game’s ailing health.

The WRU can’t really win in this situation; it’s too invested in the regional model to scrap it without massive financial losses, and to try and invest in a club game would have stretch the region’s wallets even further than they are currently. And yet the regional model isn’t working brilliantly either, failing to regularly produce either the top-quality games that such a proud rugby nation deserves or sufficient money to support the game. Wales’ economic situation, in terms of population and overall wealth, is simply not ideally suited to the excesses of professional sport, and the game is suffering as a result. And there’s just about nothing the WRU can do about it, except to just keep on pushing and hoping that their regions will gather loyalty, prestige and (most importantly) cash in due time. Maybe the introduction of an IRB-enforced universal salary cap, an idea I have long supported, would help the Welsh, but it’s not a high-priority idea within the corridors of power. Let us just hope the situation somehow manages to resolve itself.