At last, the darned rugby. After the protracted off-field rifts, both local and European, threats and more threats, the belated heads of agreement on the new way forward and all the difficulties which the new European Champions Cup has experienced, the first week of the actual tournament couldn't come quickly enough.
The rugby itself always spoke better than those who ran the game, and that hasn’t changed, despite the emergence of new rulers. Given the latter contain the new school of bully boy capitalists – who now seemingly rule the world, never mind sports – this is hardly surprising.
Any doubts therefore that the truce reached between the Anglo- French club rulers and the politicos in the Unions and Federations was anything more than decidedly uneasy have been dispelled, even before a ball has been kicked, by the latest musings of Bruce Craig – the multi-millionaire who bought Bath in 2010 and seemingly thinks he bought the game as well.
The Guardian, traditionally regarded as something of a left-wing paper in times' past, worshipped at his altar last Saturday in what should be compulsive reading for anyone in the International Rugby Board or any Union or Federation (none more so than the IRFU) lest they be in any doubt that Craig regards the Champions Cup as his valedictory creation and that, as the headline says, this is only "the start" of his quest to transform the game to his way of thinking.
Craig held court “in his tasteful study overlooking the front lawns of his stately home-turned-training ground” which is described as the “spectacular 18th-century mansion he has transformed into the most striking training base in sport.”
In a world where money is the sole criterion, Craig claims the new tournaments are a success before a ball has been kicked by citing the new organisers’ mantra “we’ve just achieved an increase of 60 per cent on TV rights alone.” This is on the premise that “the entire revenue of ERC was €4 7million,” which is at odds with an ERC statement last year claiming that “ERC’s annual revenues growing from €14 million per annum in 1999 to €54 million in 2014”.
This is also despite there being only one commercial partner instead of the intended five; fewer television viewers, if more money, with the advent of BT Sport and beIN Sport; delayed fixture announcements and the distinct possibility that the logistically flawed move from the ERC’s old Dublin headquarters to the Swiss canton of Neuchatel next year will more than double the administrative costs.
One ventures that in a year’s time much of the Cup’s teething problems, including the other four commercial partners, will be resolved. Indeed, one doesn’t doubt that “our turnover”, projects Craig, will exceed €100 million per year in four years’ time. Chillingly, he asserts: “When we say we’re going to do something, we do it.”
One always suspected that the English and French club owners resented Ireland's successes in the Heineken Cup, even if they helped to swell their attendances and the pro- file of the tournament, as well as the head offices being in Dublin – hence, in part, the move to Neuchatel.
To the notion that the new landscape will work against the Irish teams, Craig says: “The Irish are very pragmatic. They realised what they’d had couldn’t last for ever. If they’d have been on the other side they’d have been raising blue hell.” If Irish rugby is a little paranoid about the new world order, comments like that justify the feeling, and there’s little doubt Craig’s view of the “national evolution of sport” will see the Celtic and Italian game weaken, and the southern hemisphere’s too.
That Bath are losing €2-3 million per year is somehow everyone else’s fault, not theirs. With their increased TV revenue shares though, the leading Anglo-French clubs will assume even more muscle and power, with the international game and the game’s governors, the IRB, next in their line of fire.
“If you look at who controlled European rugby for the last 10 years it was actually the French,” says Craig, though for years the RFU was the English clubs’ main bugbearer. “I waged that war against the French and they always thought I didn’t have a chance.”
Craig accuses the Unions and the IRB of “self-interest” and of “protecting their own interests, not looking at what’s best for rugby,” which is laughable given the IRB and their Federations and Unions look after amateur, under-age and global rugby in both the developed and under-developed game, as opposed to one club or one league.
In any event "that victory (sic) over the French Federation has paved the way for Craig's next target" according to the Guardian, namely "a global season". This would be achieved by doing away with the June test window, with test rugby occurring in both hemispheres in October and November. Summer rugby in Europe, notably in France, could, suggests Craig – wait for it – be achieved with 32-man match-day squads. The reduced game time, he also claims, would enable clubs to play twice a week.
You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Of course, further reducing the test schedule to facilitate the expansion of the club game (in reality the Premiership and Top 14) would also weaken the Unions and Federations further, while concentrating power and money even further in the Top 14 and Premiership. But then power and money was all this battle ever was about.
“We haven’t even started yet,” warns Craig, chillingly again. Indeed. The only problem with multi-millionaires believing in their own power is that, alas, increasingly and sadly they are being proved right. Rugby should start being afraid. Very afraid.