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Gerry Thornley: It’s time to stand up to the English clubs

Attempt to interfere with Six Nations or Lions’ tours schedules must be resisted

Saracens’ Liam Williams celebrates a try with Owen Farrell. The club has incurred losses of a cumulative £36.3m or so in the last seven years. Photograph: Mark Kerton/PA

Yesterday’s launch of the European rugby campaigns for the Pro14 participants was actually the fourth of what was to have been the brave new dawn under the new tournament organisers, European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR).

 After the successful bully-boy tactics of the English and French clubs, under the guise of Premiership Rugby (PRL) and Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR), we were promised a new organisational model, in tandem with a revised format, to reflect the greater savvy of EPCR.

Along the lines of the European Champions League, there would be five commercial partners rather than one title sponsor ala the Heineken Cup, according to Mark McCafferty, the PRL representative on the EPCR board, and his buddies.

Well, a full four seasons on no less, and there are still only two commercial partners, Heineken and Turkish Airlines. Imagine the outcry from the PRL, LNR, various club owners in England and France, along with sections of the UK media, if the old ERC had so spectacularly failed to deliver on its promises. Instead, there’s been barely a squeak.

The failure to bring on board three more commercial partners has been attributed to the split television deals between Sky and BT for the rights to games in the UK and Ireland, but the latter was foisted upon the new competitions because the English clubs sold the rights to European games in tournaments that were then under the auspices of ERC!

Yet still we have the English club owners dictating to all and sundry about reducing the length of tours by the British & Irish Lions and expressing notions of expanding the season.

At least some players, such as Billy Vunipola and Joe Marler, had the gumption to speak out against such an expansion, while the Professional Rugby Players Association chairman, Christian Day, also confirmed that Premiership Rugby issued their statement about expanding the season while having the temerity to speak about player welfare being their number one concern, and yet did not consult the players’ unions.

The two longest-standing and most successful “brands” of the game are the British & Irish Lions tours (99 years older than the Premiership) and the Six Nations, and of course, the English clubs, in their supreme arrogance, want to tamper with the latter as well.

They want the Six Nations tailored to suit their season, ideally by compressing the tournament into a six-week period rather than seven or, failing that, have England and France bypass round one and instead have their game into one of the fallow weeks. Again, so much for player welfare.

This hardly tallies with extending the season from September to June. No less than the heightened risk of injuries to players, nor would such a compression of matches be in any way helpful for supporters.

Flawed models

All of this posturing has to be set against the flawed models of their very own individual clubs in the Premiership, despite increased monies from BT and a greater share of the European club cake.

In the financial year 2015-2016, nouveau riche Wasps lost £3.8 million, despite their move to the Ricoh Arena, Harlequins lost £2.2 million, Newcastle £2.1 million (£2.3m the year before), London Irish £1.9 million (£1.8m in the previous year), Bath £1.2 million (having lost £1m the year before), Sale Sharks £1.1 million (also having lost a similar amount the year before), Gloucester and Leicester Tigers £400,000 each.

As for Worcester, there have been widespread reports that the owners, Sixways Holdings Ltd, are set to walk away after incurring losses of around £16 million over the last three seasons. Only Exeter Chiefs (£0.9m) and Northampton Saints (£0.6m) announced a profit.

Then there’s Saracens. The back-to-back European Champions made a pre-tax loss of £3.3 million last year and £4 million the year previously, which was actually an improvement on the previous five years in which they lost a £5.168 million, £5.930 million, £5.827 million, £5.552 million and £6.413 million respectively.

That’s a cumulative £36.3 million or so in the last seven years, or £45.177 million loss over the last 10 years and a total of £63 million in 20 years. Thanks to Sky pitchside interviewer Graham Simmons for highlighting these figures.

No wonder the English clubs want more money from the Lions for releasing their players, as the Exeter chief executive Tony Rowe has demanded. And, failing that, the chief executive of Leicester, Simon Cohen, has demanded shorter Lions tours in, of course, the interests of player welfare.

Rowe has said that without proper financial reimbursement, the clubs would not release their players for future tours, which hardly demonstrates an understanding of what the players themselves want. One wonders what Jack Nowell would think about that, or other players at English clubs. Their comments, repeated before the first Test in New Zealand, are totally out of sync with how players and fans alike think of the Lions which, as a brand, has probably never been stronger.

The Lions manager in New Zealand, John Spencer, publicly ventured that if some clubs didn’t want to release their players the tours could go ahead without them. But Spencer has been a rare voice of opposition to the club owners in public.

Maybe the lead will come from messrs Day, Vunipola, Marler and the PRPA. The players would be well within their rights to negotiate contracts which allow them to be released for Lions tours as well as any international commitments. They would also be entitled to set a maximum number of games per season, and a minimum number of weeks for their off-season.

After all, they are entitled to protect their own welfare, and supposedly this is the primary concern of the clubs and PRL. It looks like a good time to put that to the test.

Why is it that World Rugby don’t stand up to them more? Likewise the Lions. And Ditto the Six Nations? The Lions should hold on to a 10-game tour at the very least for New Zealand, for they wouldn’t have stood an earthly if last summer had been an eight-match tour.

The Six Nations should tell the English clubs to take a running jump, and under no circumstances compress the Six Nations any more than it already is.

gthornley@irishtimes.com