As Northern Hemisphere rugby union gears itself up for this year’s Six Nations, club rugby once again takes a back seat. But, in light of recent events, has rugby union – as a professional club sport and product – reached a point of no return?
Club rugby union faces existential threats from all areas.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the full extent of the fallout from the salary cap scandal is yet to be seen. However, almost definitely it will sever ties between the fans and the professional institutions that run the sport.
Rugby, a sport that has always prided itself with the moral high ground, has lost its credibility – and this will affect fans’ relationship with the game invoking anger and disengagement.
Furthermore, this has the potential to totally re-shape the game from a practical perspective: especially in England. What could be seen is a vast movement of players away from the Premiership in search of more money as financial rules and loopholes inevitably tighten.
In addition, we could see players switching codes to rugby league. Just this week, Warrington, the Super League’s richest club said they were happy to bring relegated Saracens players to the Super League.
Super League rules allow clubs the opportunity to sign union players without their wages counting on the salary cap I the first year of any contract. Although this might represent a quick, one-year fix, it is representative of a growing trend of movement of players away from the traditional rugby union leagues.
Just this year, Sonny-Bill Williams moved cross-codes to play for Toronto Wolfpack in the Super League, whilst Ma’a Nonu announced in October that he would represent Major League Rugby’s San Diego Legion in this year’s competition.
With the sport growing in North America – where, often, the sky is the limit with regards to money, club rugby players who usually only have a decade of professional rugby in them will surely be drawn by the growing financial appeal of playing in Canada and the United States.
However, if things are bad for club rugby in the Northern Hemisphere, then the threat is even greater in the Southern Hemisphere’s Super Rugby.
2020 represents a year when rugby union could lose its national sport status in Australia. Sports broadcasters are reportedly offering Aus$20 – $30 million for the rights – a huge drop from Aus$57 from last year – that will take a lot of money out of the game as crowd’s dwindle.
As Bret Harris writes in The Guardian, ‘Without a profitable broadcast deal the player drain overseas will continue, undermining the game,’ and this is the thing. Rugby is proving to be an incompatible brand.
Failing to compete with the internationalisation of the Premier League and La Liga in football in the Southern Hemisphere, and failing to deal with the mass influx of money in sport and financial demands of players in the Northern Hemisphere places club rugby union in a perilous position.
International rugby will always survive – but as the face of sport changes in the next decade, club rugby union could become a dying brand.
By Will Sewell.