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Thorny issues

Rugby in Europe is at a crossroads, says Stuart Barnes

Sale Posted 25th September 2012 view comments

The highlight of next weekend's rugby demands a strong bottle of Malbec.

I'll be watching Argentina take on New Zealand on Sky Sports in the earliest hours of Sunday morning. New Zealand has been the dominant team with four straight wins but Argentina's travails has been the most interesting story.

Argentina: holding their own in the the Rugby Championship

Argentina: holding their own in the the Rugby Championship

The draw against South Africa, the gutsy effort against New Zealand in Wellington and a narrow defeat in Australia is a better return than many critics - myself included - thought they would achieve.

The prospect of a packed stadium welcoming the world champions is a salivating one. One week later they meet the Wallabies on home turf; the game I thought they had a sniff of winning pre Rugby Championship, the game they will now just about be favourites to win with the bookmakers; they have done that well.

A European Cup top heavy with the English and French clubs lacks diversity and appeal. This is not to dismiss all the protests but it is to say that this angle of argument is one that predominantly works in favour of the clubs.

Stuart Barnes
Quotes of the week

It is significant because the sport has been struggling to throw off the shackles of tradition and find new powerhouse nations to make the game more truly global. Sevens, with its high octane requirement of speed and fitness over the myriad techniques of the fifteen-a-side version, has enjoyed greater success in spreading the word.

In the 'proper' game however, only Argentina has made a substantial breakthrough (although the Pacific Island nations are capable of the odd seismic shock) with a third placing in the 2007 World Cup and an honourable quarter-final exit last year - minus the injured Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe.

Their immediate competitiveness in the Championship augurs well for the next World Cup and the prospects of inspiring their American neighbours - both North and South. The game needs Argentina to flourish if it is to develop as a world sport.

In Europe the same situation applies, right now, with Italy and perhaps also with Georgia. This brings us to the Heineken Cup and the International Board's approach to the game.

Future of Europe

Let us start with the thorny issue of the hotly-debated future of the Heineken Cup.

The English and French clubs see it as the elite tournament in Europe; pure and simple. They are right. Unfortunately it was initially set up to become the tournament it is maturing into whilst retaining a more munificent spirit.

The Heineken Cup was originally also a development tool (hence the early inclusion of Romanian sides) and it has to stay that way. However the existence of Treviso does not sit easily with the urge for a European Elite tournament.

Nor does the guaranteed presence of two Scottish teams etc. You know the argument by now.

There are two visions; neither is 100% right or wrong. The format does help the nations that do not have the grind of the Anglo-French club scene but the Anglo-French club scene lacks a broader, selfless vision for the rest of Europe.

It is heading in the right direction in terms of its mentioning of Georgian rugby but for all the money in the world, Scotland will take a body blow in terms of preparing their international side if Edinburgh (merited on last year's form but not their Rabo efforts) and Glasgow play in a second tier tournament. The Heineken Cup enables Scotland to hold onto and develop their players. Without that competition they will fall away.

A European Cup top heavy with the English and French clubs lacks diversity and appeal. This is not to dismiss all the protests but it is to say that this angle of argument is one that predominantly works in favour of the clubs.

And who can blame them? This is a business and not just a game; but to be a great game it has to be more than a narrow business and that's where the clubs and ERC diverge. It is where ERC is right but the clubs cannot see it with their necessarily narrower business plans and club vision.

As I wrote earlier, this is not a column blaming parties here and there but an attempt to understand how the game has got itself into this mess, looking beyond the broadcast scenario which I am sure you understand I cannot discuss.

Development

What the clubs have mentioned and what should be adopted by an IRB that has been often too slow to show initiative and bravery is the development of the sport elsewhere - hence the column's concentration on Argentina. The Six Nations should not be the cartel that the Premiership is not. Georgia could be an Exeter; Russia a London Welsh.

It is long overdue that the Six Nations should become the leading league in a European international game with the potential for promotion and relegation. In broadcast terms Georgia is not quite Edinburgh or Rome but it is a long-term plan that is required, not short-term agreements to fill the coffers.

In the club game, relegation gives the Premiership life at the lower levels and - most importantly - it enables a club with a dream/plan/lucky streak/genius to join the elite. The sport at club and international level has to offer opportunity to all teams and nations.

The promotion/relegation issue is simmering. The new money flooding into the Premiership has implications in terms of cutting the rich off from the rest and also comforting the smaller and poorer Premiership clubs that will spend their money on balancing the books instead of buying the best from around world.

At international level the governing body has been slow to grasp the challenge whereas at club level the RFU has been a bulwark against people who are free marketers in their business but monopolists in their rugby thinking. The game must grow but the argument is from which direction.

Trickle down is voodoo economics and rugby nonsense. The game needs to grow from the bottom up. What we are still seeing, alas, are the growing pains of a sport that at less than 20 years professional remains a young profession. These are still the teenage days of the game with family squabbles an inevitable consequence.

Stuart answers your emails...

Got a question for Stuart? Email him at skysportsclub@bskyb.com or use the feedback form below...

Stuart, Who do you think will fill the gap left by Foden? Tom Homer was great last season being top scorer, lost a bit of form now. Brown and Abendanon also must be in the mix or is Goode all but nailed on to fill the gap?
Anton Cunningham

STUART REPLIES: Anton, I wrote a column on this very subject for my newspaper on Sunday. Having watched another weekend of rugby my hunch that Mike Brown should and will start has grown to a conviction. He was excellent and Goode's physical question marks were exposed on a few occasions at Exeter. Abendanon is the bolter. If Manu Tuilagi stays centre perhaps he could slip into the left wing berth so England retain the two full-backs in the back three experiment that worked quite well in South Africa.

Do you think that Steve Scott should be the scapegoat for Sale's poor start? Surely you have to question Bryan Redpath's credentials as a coach. The manner in which he left Gloucester last season was appalling and this season he looks to have turned a Heineken Cup side into relegation candidates.
Steve Smith

STUART REPLIES:Steve, I guess Scott suffered from being lower in the managerial pecking order... that seems the way of the world. Steve Diamond appointed Bryan Redpath and anything too dramatic in his direction would have the owner doubting Diamond and so it goes...

With Quins having beaten Leicester on their own patch for the second year running, are we seeing a shift in English rugby's top team?

It is also shaping up to be another good season for Quins domestically, but how far can they go against the top teams in Europe in the Heineken Cup? Do they have the squad depth to challenge for both domestic and European trophies?
Joseph Farrow

STUART REPLIES:Joseph, Harlequins dominated Leicester at Welford Road and play with a pace and conviction that suggests they are England's only Heineken hope. I thought Leicester were getting there pre-season but they have not worked out how to play with the speed and variety to trouble the best. They and Saracens have been disappointing for the last fortnight. As for the strength in depth, alas it looks as if we will find out how strong Harlequins are earlier than is ideal. They looked a seriously good club on Saturday and nobody would fancy them on current form. Contenders.

Comments (4)

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Dave Roberts says...

Before worrying about changing the 6 Nations, the home unions need to start taking strong national sides to play in Russia, Georgia and Romania regularly. I have always moaned that NZ and Aus never take teams to the South Sea Islands, but now, we are doing the same in Europe. Surely our countries have a duty to help grow the sport in Europe. Is one less boringly predictable money spinning game against NZ or SA too high a price to pay to help develop the Georgian team?

Posted 12:33 26th September 2012

Charlie Prince says...

With the autumn internationals coming up would you rather go form an inexperienced exciting side ? Or do you believe we should play a more stable team for the world cup qualification ? Also who would be your fly half ?

Posted 19:33 25th September 2012

Paul Jones says...

ruby is bigger than any indervidaul or club we must promote the game a two tear 6 ations would be a good thing it would make the current 6 sit up and take notice promote more youg players form all over europe and maybe take on the southern hemisphare teams and more imprortanly develope young players from all over europe

Posted 16:14 25th September 2012

Paul Heneke says...

What are your thoughts on the South African kicking situation? It's fair to say that the All Blacks and Australians play a prettier brand of rugby, but the old South African way is *nearly* working - the games in Perth and Dunedin were close. The problem was the placekicking from Morne Steyn (especially in NZ). How would you suggest Meyer address this? As a Stormer I would love to see Peter Grant drafted in, but I know that this is highly unlikely...

Posted 15:09 25th September 2012

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