Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Impetus For European Expansion Still Lacking

National Rugby Super League

One of the arguments proffered by the PRL, the umbrella organisation of the English premiership rugby clubs is that the ERC have failed to properly spread rugby throughout Europe. While it is difficult to disagree with this suggestion it is worth noting that nothing from the PRL's governance suggestion, The Six Nations Committee to their proposals for financial distribution indicate that rugby nations outside of the big six in Europe would be any more sure of how to progress towards the top European Club Competition or indeed how to maximise the revenue they can make from European competition in the land of the Rugby Champions Cup.

Currently the Amlin Challenge Cup offers 2 places for non 6 nations countries, one being the Bucaresti Oak's a combination of the best club players in Romania and the second being either the champions of Spains Division of Honour or a Portugese team made up of the best domestic players called Lusitano's XV. The competition also includes the 4 best teams from Italy's Super 10 with all of these teams having extremely poor records against France and Englands weaker top division sides. On the face of it at least it seems the ERC have pushed the agenda of teams outside of the 3 most prominent league to a point where a neutral observer may opine that they have been a contributory factor in the downfall of the second competition.

With all of that in mind why would I suggest an expanded European Competition could be profitable? Put simply I don't believe the ERC have explored the possibility of expanding their competitions beyond the current frontiers correctly. Taking first of all the example of Romanian rugby the Bucaresti Wolves managed by the national coach Lyn Howells seems at first, second and third glance a poorly thought out solution to a country where professional rugby along with the general economy have made massive strides in recent years. Prior to explaining the benefits of selecting teams from Romania's Professional Rugby Championship for European Rugby let me explain why the Wolves despite some notable victories against Italian Super 10 sides are not the best solution. Within the National Championship Bucharest sides such as Dinamo, Steau & CSM have drifted backwards in terms of quality meaning that they do not form a significant part of the Bucaresti Side. This has a number of negative impacts on the side principally that rugby supporters in Bucharest fail to build a raporte with the side and also that the side do not train together as often as is required to gain the chemistry needed to succeed in a pan European club competition. The latter reason is key and as demonstrated by teams such as The Barbarians rugby is a game where team chemistry is more important than the sum ability of players.

Romanian club rugby at the highest level has begun to show signs that it could compete at least as well as some of the Italian Super 10 teams with the promise of a genuinely new financial market for the ERC or whoever governs the tournament next year. One of these signs is the reported budgets for the top 2 teams in the league RC Timisoara & Farul Constanta being north of €2.5 million per annum a similar level to many French Pro D2 clubs as well as clubs such as Connacht and Zebre. Similar to many French & English clubs their new found wealth is built on generous benefactors however the extra investment has resulted in an increase in interest in the local league as well as an improvement in the quality of those players and coaches signed by Romanian clubs. Chester Williams of South African World Cup Fame recently coached Timisoara to back to back titles. The competition these clubs play in also has a title sponsor CEC Bank & has recently begun to use Television Match Official's to adjudicate on key decisions similar to many of the top leagues. Crucially all games in the tournament are broadcasted on online stations or Romanian terestrial TV. One proposition in incorporating some of these clubs into European competition could be the formation of a league with Italy's Super 10 sides who have drifted backwards since Italian involvement in the Pro 12 . With a large Romanian diaspora in many of Italys rugby cities combined with cheap and short flights between the two countries a successful league aligned with a European Competition is less pie in the sky than many would believe.

Outside of Romania , professional rugby structures exist within Russia with massive budgets and the promise of international rugby attracting players from Super Rugby. While in Georgia forwards are exported to French Top 14 clubs every year without fail while the national team can attract crowds as big as 50,000 to their most important home internationals. In both of these cases geographical location as well as in Russia's case a particularly harsh winter have meant that introducing these powers of the East to club as well as (top level international rugby) has been considered to be too much of an organisational challenge rather than a growth opportunity. In addition to natural options such as these rugby is increasing its profile in several other European countries where with the correct competition structure and funding organic growth of professional rugby sides could easily occur. Belgium and specifically Brussels which has hosted the Barbarians as well as Heineken cup games has the potential for a successful franchise with the correct encouragement.

Alas the suggested route to competition for these clubs and potential clubs appears to be a qualifying tournament in September & October taking in teams from the 6 or 7 countries who may have a desire to enter European rugby's top flight with 2 moving on to feature in Europe's 2nd competition. The primary issue with this is the level of financial risk in terms of the considerable costs associated with travelling to compete in such a tournament compared with the reward where 2 teams are brought forward to compete with diluted and lowly ranked European clubs who will have already secured a much greater slice of the pie in terms of competition revenue. Consider the scenario of a Russian club travelling 4 time zones to Spain to compete in front of a few hundred in a 'Tournament' that will most likely not be given sufficient profile or prize money for a 1 in 4 chance of playing the Newcastle, Zebre & Bordeaux reserves with your expenses and time unlikely to be valued the same as those you are competing with.

The rich will seemingly get richer , while the poor or in this case the unaffected are liable to stay, well unaffected.

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