The game has never seemed more global. Whichever corner of the world you look there seems to be something of interest occurring and something with implications all over the world. Well, you know what they say, it’s a small world.
Let’s start in Wales where the internecine struggle seems to have ended with the signing of a six years Rugby Services Agreement. Two years of simmering antagonisms have drawn to a close with a deal that promises a better financial deal for the regions and more autonomous player control for the union.
The regions will receive not only half a million pounds more but financial assistance for up to six players for whom the WRU will pay 60 per cent of their salary and the regions the other 40%. During the stalemate Leigh Halfpenny and Jonathan Davies have left for the riches of France. Warren Gatland and the Welsh coaches to come after him would prefer to keep a greater control on their talent. The deal should help keep players whose reasons for leaving are primarily financial.
The regions will become slightly less independent. This is almost inevitable. When, under the influence of David Moffett the Welsh professional game was regionalised the heart of the Welsh game – the club game – was torn out. Professional rugby is now geared towards the national team.
What could be more inspiring than a fledgling power like Georgia to have a shot at beating the bottom of the Six Nations for a season of high profile rugby?
Overseas players are to be limited to six with two of them available for Wales. In Cardiff the Blues will be hoping Gareth Anscombe shows the form to convince fellow ex Waikato man, Gatland, that he is such a player.
The restoration of an A team is also good news. Hopefully a step can be taken towards an `A’ competition running parallel to the Six Nations. Hopefully it will strengthen the Welsh challenge that has relied solely upon the Ospreys in recent seasons. In which case the implications for the Guinness Pro 12 league are good; a more powerful Welsh challenge would add the depth through the competition that has been lacking in recent years. Combined with the seven team qualification ruling for the European Champions Cup we should see an improved league and an extra challenge to the Irish regions whose modelling is not that dissimilar to the accord signed in Wales.
Which brings me to the question of what is in a name? The old Heineken Cup has been revamped. It is now a champions’ cup despite the fact that only three of the teams are champions (European champions are not automatic qualifiers for the next season). It sounds sexier, sounds much like that other Champions League that seems to be rather a successful business. It sounds as if the clubs want to flex their own financial muscle a little bit more which, of course, they do.
And now the International Rugby Board announces it is leaving its fusty old name behind, a name I am sure their well paid consultants suggested linked them with the good old amateur days over which they presided. In a mission statement long on ambition and short on grammar I particularly liked this line, `in a crowded global entertainment and sporting market place the role of the IRB has evolved from game regulator to global inspirer.’ And so World Rugby is born.
Considering the absolute mess it got the game into with its ELVs and thrice a month law changes I hope its inspirational wing is an improvement. As its attempts to reengage the game with the scrum was a well conceived policy and is doing well maybe we can expect to see World Rugby inspiring by forcing New Zealand to occasionally visit the Pacific Islands and by creating a ladder from the second tier of European test rugby to the Six Nations.
What could be more inspiring than a fledgling power like Georgia to have a shot at beating the bottom of the pile in the Six Nations for a season of high profile rugby? The blazers would not like this and nor would we in television where the extra frisson of an in independent Scotland facing England in Edinburgh would shoot the ratings through the roof (this is not a dig at the BBC. If we, ITV or BT held the rights our instinctive thoughts would be similar, I am sure). But inspiration on a global scale means profit might have to take the occasional tumble in the interests of longer term benefit. On a smaller scale something similar is happening with the third tier tournament in Europe. It might not make a splash now but twenty years down the line, who knows?
Zipping from north to southern hemisphere, Ewen McKenzie has told Karmichael Hunt and James O’ Connor that neither will tour this autumn with the Wallabies as neither is qualified within the current Australian remit. McKenzie taking the Stuart Lancaster/Steffon Armitage approach; but across the Tasman Steve Hansen knows rules are for breaking and Sonny Bill is heading our way, straight back from league or not. An exceptional player so exceptional circumstances; The All Blacks treat words and rulings with the same respect drivers have for 70mph on the motorway.
Finally to France where the European and French champions lost at Racing Metro. Toulon lost to one of the country’s more star studded teams by seven points. They selected two of their best fifteen to start. Even in defeat they look more and likely to be the team to beat anywhere when it matters. Montpellier beat Clermont as the old fortress is stormed early in the season.
The latter looks like good news for Saracens, Munster and Sale. The former ominous for Leicester, Ulster and the Scarlet’s; the Premiership and Pro 12 kick off this weekend as well as the continuation of the Rugby Championship where England fans will be fascinated by Australia’s game with South Africa.
Argentina has the unenviable task of facing New Zealand away. These two will meet each other in 2015. As for 2014 I gear up for a trip to Glasgow where Gregor Townsend will be hoping his team can scalp the champions and their conquerors in last season’s final, Leinster. See you there.
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Hi Stuart, my tickets for Saturday’s double-header have yet to arrive so I’ve got my fingers crossed and in the meantime wondered what you make of the concept and whether it gives one team and advantage over another, bearing in mind it means one less home game for a couple of teams… See you there?! - Steve, Whitton, Quins fan
STUART REPLIES: Steve, I'll be in Glasgow for the Guinness Pro 12 game so it'll be Sunday viewing for me. As for the double header it is not so much one team has the the advantage as the designated `home' team loses theirs, but with home advantage shifting each year it works out fair enough in the long run.
The Welsh Rugby Union and the four Regions have finally come to an agreement following months of disputes. Do you feel that the agreement that has been reached is the best one for Welsh rugby, and has the delay in reaching that agreement done some long-term damage to the game in Wales? – Martin K
STUART REPLIES: Martin K, It's not bad. I have long given up on the perfect agreement but financially it seems decent for the clubs and the quid pro quo is ok for Wales. I still pine for Cardiff v Swansea but those days will not return so we make do with what we have. An end to the off field bickering has to be worth something psychologically positive for Welsh rugby, you would think?
Morning. As a fan of the ‘grunt game’, I’m fascinated by England’s front row combinations and wondered how serious you think Dan Cole’s absence could be this Autumn. Is there enough strength in depth? - Andrew Ismail
STUART REPLIES: The return of Alex Corbiserio on the loose will add greatly to the depth lacking in New Zealand but Cole's injury keeps the pressure on David Wilson. One year out from the World Cup and looking for new young props is not the ideal scenario but Wilson did a decent job in New Zealand, no need to panic quite yet.
Rebel no more?
Utility back James O’Connor has returned to Australia and signed for the Reds. Clearly he still has ambition to play for the Wallabies and wants to be included in the World Cup squad next year. Should Australia pick him or is there too much talent already on offer to risk including him? – Josh, London
STUART REPLIES: Josh, he has played some scintillating stuff for the Wallabies. I think patience with the problem boys reaps rewards. It would have been easy to give up on Kurtley Beale, one of James O' Connor's good mates, yet look at his form. In England the same applies to Danny Cipriani whose match-up with George Ford is my Premiership highlight of the weekend.
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