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Here’s Why England Will Always Have Clubs

rugby

Any talk of English regions or franchises will always be pie-in-the-sky, argues Paul Wassell.

Back in 2003, the Welsh Rugby Union caused great controversy and much resentment from fans when it introduced its plan for the regionalisation of rugby in Wales.

Historic clubs such as Pontypridd, Pontypool, Ebbw Vale and Cardiff would disappear as professional entities, to be replaced by five regional teams. Within a few years, one of these teams, the Celtic Warriors, met its demise and the country was left with just four major teams.

This was done in the interest of costs but also – it was argued – the interests of the national team. Yet only recently has an agreement between the WRU and the regions been arranged in the form of national dual contracts (NDCs) to allow those contracted players to focus on their international duty.

In Ireland teams have always been drawn alongside provincial lines, just as in New Zealand, which greatly benefitted the IRFU when professionalism arrived.

However, England has always had clubs and continues to do so.

With the arrival of professionalism, a move which the RFU had long resisted, modelling itself as the last bastion of the amateur days, it was poorly prepared. A football-like model was drawn up where clubs still provided players for the national side but also paid them.

Years later and the number of club vs. country issues that have arisen from this situation have been plentiful and deeply frustrating for England and club fans alike.

Moreover, the fear of English rugby going the same way of English football, where clubs are the dominant force and the national set up is subservient and secondary in importance is one that still constantly lingers.

In France, the situation is much further down the line. With major clubs such as Toulon, Toulouse, Clermont Auvergne and Racing 92 funded by multi-millionaires and huge corporate backers, the focus has shifted away from developing French players for the national side and moved to signing world class players from across the world.

This is perfectly manifested in Toulon where owner Mourad Boudjellal, who made his fortune through comic books, has transformed the once ailing team into triple European Cup winners by assembling a ‘Justice League’ of the world’s top talent.

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But this has been at the cost of the national team: the current Six Nations squad contains only two players from the European champions’ squad.

In 2007, the RFU’s disagreement with the Premiership clubs reached a critical peak when it published its ‘The Way Forward’ consultation: a document that cost £1 million to produce and ultimately tried to find a way the national side could progress based around an altered domestic set-up.

Out of this ill-advised venture, the RFU proposed a number of alternatives to the current set up, including setting up franchises co-owned by the RFU itself. But such a scenario will never be supported by the clubs, it would essentially be like turkeys voting for Christmas.

Club identities are also firmly entrenched in the English psyche as well. Supporters of Bath and Bristol laughed off the idea of a combined ‘Wessex Warriors’ side when both teams were threatened with relegation several years ago.

The rivalry that exists between Leicester and Northampton is one of the many beautiful parts of the English game and this should not be threatened by the possibility of an East Midlands region or representative team.

The county championship has always existed in England but has never really interested fans who would much rather align themselves to their local club rather than an artificial entity.

This attitude still exists in Wales and some supporters would much happily go and watch the semi-professional Newport or Ebbw Vale play than the Newport-Gwent Dragons. What drives Welsh rugby is the success of the national side and this is why Welsh fans tolerate the regions that were forced on them.

The RFU has now accepted that the clubs are here to stay and they are powerful. Rather than working against them, as was the case for most of the early days of professionalism, they are now finding ways of working with them.

The EPS agreement is a start and it is likely it will be re-signed later this year. There is still a lot more work to do, but at least the clubs and the national governing body are working together rather than pulling each other apart. However, the English clubs are going nowhere.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.