|The financial meltdown in international rugby. |
Temperatures touched 40°C this week in parts of France, enough to make the road surfaces melt. However, this was not the only news making the headlines. A melt-down of another type was threatening rugby, that of financial liquidity. In France, Stade Francais and Narbonne, between them winnners of more than 10 championships, were involved. For the Super 15 franchise, the Golden Lions, the termination of the relationship with their major investor has left them pondering the union's future.
At an international level, it requires more than one hand to count the number of nations, who will be at the RWC this year, with a cash crisis, not least the hosts themselves. Unlike club rugby, national teams are unlikely to find or accept an individual investor/saviour. They rely on sponsors, mainly 'multi-national' companies.
The bigger the country, in terms of population, the more likely the chances of attracting that vital signature. The sponsor is, after all, looking to sell his product/services. Thus a country like Fiji will always struggle to find major backers, however good its team, unlike cash rich England and France.
The businessmen who bailed out Stade Francais and Narbonne from potential relegation, did it more for the love of the game. They are unlikely to see a return on their investment.
The average deficit of a Pro D2 club in France is over 1 million Euros. These clubs are faced with the same problems as the 2nd tier Rugby Nations -
of whether they want to compete with the 'Big Boys' and thus have to pay 'Big Boy' salaries, or become 3rd tier.
The level below Pro D2 in France, is Fed 1, which on the whole, is self financing, but few teams make the next step-up and stay there, without that extra in-put.
The quantum leap to the Top 14 is now only in the reach of clubs from large towns/cities, populations of 250,000 or more, who are able to call on the necessary cash-injection to attract the top players. Thus Lyon, (population over 1 million) and Bordeaux, (population 500,000), as this year's promoted teams, will replace Bourgoin, (25,000), and La Rochelle, (100,000).
This is the modern era of professional rugby. Sink or swim. For those that are interested, the cost of bailing out the 'Stade' was 12 million Euros, a club that brought and bought glamour to pro rugby, pink shirts and all, but at a price. The money came from one individual, and his 'love' of the club.
In England, Bath, a famous club, but a town of 110 thousand, is now being underwritten by a local buisnessman, who is willing to cover their 1.5-2.0 million annual lose. These are the same people who want a 'no relegation' elite division, similar to the franchises of the Super 15. They may not get their money back, but they want their say.
The cash-rich club of Gabriele Lovobalavu – Toulon - is looking to increase its annual budget from 20 million Euros to 30 million. Most of that will go towards trying to attract the top names in world rugby. Salaries have rocketed in the Top 14 by 70% in the last 5 years, without the reciprocal increase in income.
Attempted salary caps mean little. There will always be individuals who wish to see their team at the top, and with the money to try and achieve this.
So where does this leave the international scene? As mentioned, England and France have the infra-structure and populations to support national teams at all levels. Followed by South Africa and Australia, who were not on the 'radar' 40 years ago. New Zealand has always had the players, but keeping them within a national set-up is crippling their rugby union, financially, as more and more players are lured away by the glittering gold that is the French club rugby scene.
As far as a country like Fiji is concerned, the talent is there, but to compete at the top level on limited resources is always going to be a struggle. This was shown at the Junior World Championship (JWC) in Italy. The final 6th place was the best yet in four attempts, however the gap between them and those at the top was made all too clear by the result against South Africa.
One cannot expect a young in experienced squad to perform in five matches in a little over two weeks. The physical nature of the game of rugby takes its toll in injures and general fatigue. There needs to be the back-up personnel to keep things going. This costs money, something that is in short supply at the F.R.U. at the moment.
The IRB is looking to extend the time-period of the competition with larger squads in order to keep the latter stages from degenerating into a war of attrition. But one needs the resources and finance to achieve this.
So to the tournament itself where the Fiji Under 20s showed resilience against a stronger French team, were commendable in the Australian match and did what was necessary to beat Tonga. The victory against Wales was probably their 'final'. The Welsh are setting up a committee (typically Welsh who love their committees) to look at want went wrong.
But for Fiji the fact remains there was a lack of cohesion/technique in the games played, particularly in the scrum and line-outs, to better drilled opponents. There was also a naivety in the faults made, possession given away and penalties conceded - Fiji has the worst yellow card count since the JWC began.
The players and staff will come away better from the experience. Amongst those to mention are Josateki Lalagavesi's kicking and general ball sense, 63 points in total; Metuisela Talebula and his attacking game, whatever position he played. Semi Radradra should be there next year, and belied his age with the class he showed. Finally in the engine room Maikeli Mudu and his two tries and the captain, Koli Nalasekata who always led from the front.