Money could replace tradition as they battle for the soul of rugby
Fear CVC simply wants money is like worrying that a shark simply wants to move and eat
Those lucky enough to be in the Millennium Stadium instinctively know that they are participating in one of the enduring rites of passage in their country: Wales in a spring-time Six Nations game with everything on the line. Photograph: Getty Images
The sights and sounds of the Welsh singing their anthem on a Six Nations rugby afternoon in Cardiff is one of the most evocative pageants in sport. It’s not just the passion or the sonorous clarity of the collective Voice but the accumulated weight of tradition that goes into it, as if they are summoning forth everything that has made “Wales” Wales.
Listen hard enough and you are transported to Thomas’s small town, “starless and bible black”, and to Burton’s voice, “the deep dark answer from the valleys – to everyone”, and to Barry John, always just beyond the grasp of English or Irish hands.
In terms of sporting atmosphere such power simply can’t be bought. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not for sale. While the build-up all week has concentrated on gladiatorial battle between Ireland and Wales, the real battle for rugby’s soul has been played out in a conference room in Dublin, with the representatives of World Rugby and the Six Nations sitting down to try to trash out the future of the old game.
The chances are that the name of William Neill did not come up during the discussions. Neill – or Billy O’Neill – was one of the most celebrated members of the Cardiff Invincibles side of the early 1900s, and won a Grand Slam with Wales in 1908: their first such feat.
In Rugby Codebreakers, Carolyn Hitt’s fascinating film about the Welsh rugby heroes who moved from rugby union to league, O’Neill’s descendents speculated about why he decided to leave the game. They believe his acute disappointment at being ignored by WRU selectors – possibly because of his Irish heritage – for an overseas tour was central to his decision.
Neill signed for Warrington for £100, and became one of the many Welsh union stars who swapped the amateur game for its professional cousin. Hitt’s film estimates that 70 full internationals traded codes during the economically destitute decades between the two world wars, an absence that contributed to Wales’s dismal Five Nations record at this time.
So money was always sniffing around and compromising international rugby union.
There has been considerable ill-ease about the news that CVC Capital is the most prominent of potential investors interested in acquiring a stake in the lucrative and brilliantly marketed Six Nations championship. Its keenness will hardly be dimmed if Saturday’s Celtic spectacle is as ferocious and nailbiting as the Grand Slam decider in 2009.
Jack Kyle was present to meet Brian O’Driscoll in a greeting that was truly poignant and needed no embellishment. It’s what rugby has done brilliantly since reinventing itself as a professional sport: that nurturing of the revered past with the shiny present.
CVC’s reported offer of £500 million for a 30 per cent share in the Six Nations will be extremely tempting for various chiefs whose job it is to safeguard and ensure the financial well-being of the game in their respective patch. The fear is that the company simply wants to make money out of rugby, which is a bit like worrying that a shark simply wants to move and eat.
CVC has been swimming in the world of asset management since 1981, and is awesome at money-ology. It currently boasts stock assets of $75 billion, and would be happy to add the reflected financial acumen of Ireland’s redoubtable front row into that stable.
Its last big flashy sports investment was in Formula 1, in which it acquired a majority stake in 2006 for $1.7 billion. It extracted handsome profits for a decade, with a return of investment estimated to have exceeded 300 per cent.
The race schedule of F1 was altered in that decade, with many of the long-standing European Grand Prix races disappearing, prestige manufacturers exiting the sport and the worldwide viewing figures drastically reduced as F1 vanished from terrestrial television.
It wasn’t that long ago when F1 dominated your television screens whether you wanted it or not: now fans have to make a concerted effort to watch and follow the races.
It could be that F1’s high point in popularity coincided with Senna/Prost and the voice of Murray Walker, and that the attraction of watching beautiful cars being driven very fast isn’t deemed as exciting anymore and, irrespective of CVC’s involvement, Formula 1 would have had to go and seek new markets anyway. Yet when CVC sold the show on one F1 team chief accused the firm of “raping the sport”.
One of the chief appeals of the Six Nations is that it is inherently rooted in the locality. Those lucky enough to be in the Millennium Stadium instinctively know that they are participating in one of the enduring rites of passage in their country: Wales in a spring-time Six Nations game with everything on the line.
Few sports have benefitted from the evolution of televised sport like rugby: the slowed down collisions; the breathtaking camera angles; the vast cast of ex-players turned analysts. Criticism of the sport is disguised at best: games are rarely poor, they are brutal or hard.
Right now the Six Nations has a potent combination of genuine sporting heritage and an absorbing television entertainment package. CVC, which already bought a significant slice of England’s club rugby “Premiership” competition and is in talks to buy into the PRO 14, clearly sees the potential of expanding that television audience in the years ahead.
If Wales do go on and win their 12th Grand Slam it will coincide with a period when their domestic game is in flux. The financial troubles of the unions in Australia and South Africa are well documented. It’s no secret that the rationale behind the much maligned “World League” is to hitch a ride on the burgeoning popularity of the Six Nations, and the seemingly insatiable appetite for autumn internationals in the home countries.
The big gamble that the countries behind the Six Nations take in signing a deal with CVC or any financial behemoth is that they have no way of predicting how their competition will look in 10 or 20 years’ time.
Yes, the ground will tremble in Cardiff shortly before three this afternoon, making the tournament feel like the surest bet of all time. However, the reason for that is that the people believe that it’s their competition and their team, and that it is something worth their devotion.
The change won’t occur overnight but if in five or 10 years the people begin to feel that the Six Nations has become spiritually bankrupt – that it’s just a series of games designed to make money and it no longer feels authentic – then, like Billy O’Neill, they will begin to walk away from the game they love.
And that won’t be the problem of any equity firm.