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The Ospreys and Wales loosehead expects a big reaction against Australia after the chastening loss to Georgia

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'I want to talk positively, I'm not hunting for negative things'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Alex Wallace/Comic Relief via Getty Images)

It’s the curse of the in-the-bag, rainy day interview – by the time you get to publish, events can have moved on rapidly. So it has proved with Ugo Monye and his Gallagher Premiership new season chat with RugbyPass. When we spoke, the dawn of the 2022/23 campaign was alive to the possibility that it could be the most fantastic season ever.

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It still could be that given the incredible entertainment provided by some of the fixtures. Just look at the thrills and spills from the invigorating round three weekend just gone. The games at Saracens and Exeter were brilliantly only decided by the last play while the scoreboard operators at Bath and Bristol were also breathlessly working overtime trying to keep up with their respective score-fests.

But then there is Worcester and the grim 5pm Monday news that they had been suspended and placed into relegation-facing administration as the financial and insurance guarantees sought by the RFU failed to be met by hapless club owners who have embarrassingly got themselves into a right old humiliating muddle.

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The optics are brutal for the tournament. This was originally supposed to be the season when the Premiership would have 14 teams for the first time since 1998/99 when the likes of Richmond, London Scottish, Bedford Blues and West Hartlepool were rubbing shoulders with the elite before that particular era’s financial bubble spectacularly burst.

Reigning championship champions Ealing and their failure to meet stadium criteria scuppered the plan to go from 13 to 14 clubs this September and the optics are set to get a whole lot worse with Worcester now suspended. If they don’t get taken over, it means we’re back to a twelve-team event for the campaign and there is the worrying angst about what the heck is going on at Wasps, who moved last week to have an administrator appointed due to their ailing financial situation. A potential eleven teams? Disaster!

Before a ball was kicked earlier this month, Monye was in his element playing up the merits of the Premiership like a circus ringmaster packing out his tent with an enticing ‘roll up, roll up’ refrain. “It’s no different for me as a pundit, just that level of excitement,” he purred. “When you look back a couple of months and the way the Premiership season finished it was an incredible moment with Freddie Burns.

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“I have seen that replay so many times and I am excited for the launch of the Premiership because it is going to be an unbelievable year of rugby, not just the Premiership but at the end of it we have a World Cup and no doubt this season will deliver many moments like we had last season.

“Worcester is tough. Their life is more than rugby at the moment and that is the reality. Hopefully, they get a positive outcome quite quickly so players can focus on what they are there to do, which is training to play and not worry about finances and mortgages and contracts and everything else… but this feels like it’s going to be the most competitive season ever, it really does because of the level of quality we have in the Premiership again.”

The Premiership provided Monye with his livelihood for a dozen seasons as a one-club player who used his finishing prowess at Harlequins to scale the international heights with England and the Lions. It was 2015 when he called it quits and yet the competition still provides him with a living, mainly as a BT Sport rugby pundit. What is it like doling out the opinions when for years he was on the receiving end of those observations both good and bad?

“Well, we live in a subjective world, don’t we? Pundits are paid to give their opinions and it is just their opinions. Some of it is based on fact. You had some pundits that you really liked and respected and you had some pundits that you didn’t like as much,” he said, recalling his own playing days and the punditry that existed at the time.

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“That opinion that I had is probably the same as what players have today and will still be the opinion that players have in a hundred years to come, that is just how it is and that is just part and parcel of the job quite understandably.

“It is easier to like pundits when they are nice about you but that is based on the fact that it is also easy to be a pundit talking about teams that are successful. If a team and players play well every week it is very easy. You don’t have to manufacture positives or weave in manufactured stories of how well they are doing, they are just doing well.

“Personally, I try to be as objective as I can. I come from a baseline where I want to talk positively about the sport and the game in general. I’m not hunting for things that are negative but I can only talk about the pictures and the performances that are on the screen.”

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His best adventures so far on the mic? “I remember commentating on my first Premiership final in 2017, that was a big moment. That was a huge moment. Also, being at my first World Cup match (Australia versus Fiji in 2019). As a player, I was never fortunate enough to play at a World Cup but as a pundit out in Japan and commentating on that, that is why I feel fortunate in the job that I do. I say it a lot, I have moved on without moving far away. Rugby has been such a big part of my life and still is today, but I just do it from a totally different perspective now.”

The game’s complexion has changed immensely in the last while. “You look at Jason Robinson and his sentiment from (England) 2003 to 2019, we are seeing more people from all different walks of life getting involved in the game. I would like to see more. I don’t play the game, I’m retired, but I just know it is an unbelievable life-changing experience playing the game and I want as many people to have that same opportunity I had.

“There are certainly more opportunities than from when I started the game to when I retired and the more that rugby can reach out to new territories and new communities and spread the gospel of rugby because we know the power that rugby can affect and change people’s lives, the better.”

Those opportunities still exist despite the awful financial turmoil at Worcester, Moyne taking issue with reports that over 80 players across the league were left without a contract at the end of the 2021/22 season. “I know there has been a lot made of it this season and rightly so because you don’t want to see people out of employment, especially something that you are absolutely so passionate about and absolutely love, but the rate of unemployment in the Premiership is actually no different to how it is.

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“The stats are that about 20 per cent of players at the end of a season will either have to find a new club or might be forced to move leagues or not even have a contract. That is the stark reality, the ruthless reality of a professional sport.

“The question I want to pose is if it is a 20 per cent, or one in five players, are prepared to potentially be in that position at the end of the season, there is loads of great work done by the RPA and Restart Rugby and there is so many individuals who focus on that and try spin a couple of plates by playing to the max of their ability as well as trying to protect their future.

“Well, that is where I really care, that is what I am passionate about, that is where I want to focus my attention and try to help players realise their potential, not just for today but when they transition as well.”

The business of sport and the figures floating around about the Premiership are something on the mind of Monye, the Arsenal fan “I don’t think the financial woes are not exclusive to rugby. Just this summer Barcelona were struggling. If a mighty club like Barcelona, a superpower in world football, can struggle financially then so can the teams in the Gallagher Premiership.

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“Sport and business are intrinsically woven together but you have only got to look at the accounts of some football clubs to know that they are losing hundreds of millions of pounds every single season. That can be absorbed by crazily wealthy people, multi-billionaires. Of course, we would love rugby to be more sustainable.

“That is me saying it as someone who is not an owner of a rugby club. Of course, we want them to be profitable. The reduction in the salary cap can hopefully better the sustainability from a business perspective but, as I said, it is not an issue exclusive to rugby. When you think of the cost of living crisis and think about households, how is that going to be affecting sport?

“The running costs of a stadium and everything else is something that most people in the country are going to be fearing. It will be the same in county cricket, it’s the same in the Premier League, it’s the same in the Championship and League One. Sport will feel the aftershock of what society is currently feeling at the moment.”

And yet there is plenty for rugby to cheer for. “What I do know is the role that sport plays during times of stress, just more recently in the time of covid, it was an outlet for so many people. You only have to pick up the newspapers or turn on the telly and you can feel quite suppressed by what is going on, whether it is the cost of living crisis, sustainability or a global crisis, loads of different things.

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“Sport is essential and I say that as someone who has been involved in it for a very long time. Is rugby expensive? Well, that is all relative. You can compare it to tickets for other sports and it is great value for money and if you can’t be there in person, then listen to us which hopefully isn’t too painful on BT Sport. That of course is another option.

“I know people are feeling the squeeze this year, that is for sure, but we do hope that we see packed-out crowds and packed-out stadiums and that level of travelling support. Just going by what I have seen in the Premier League in football since that started and the Champions League, it has certainly not deterred any football fans and we are hoping rugby fans are exactly the same,” suggested Monye before mentioning the names of some emerging young rugby players that will keep him glued to the Premiership action in the weeks and months ahead.

“We saw a load of them play out in Australia in the summer Tests. It was a brilliant series victory but the undercurrent of that squad that Eddie Jones selected was based on youth whether it was Jack van Poortvliet or Ollie Chessum in the second row or Will Joseph, Henry Arundell, Freddie Steward who feels like he has been playing international rugby for a long time.

“I have named five or six players there who will hopefully have massive seasons again this year. There is a whole heap of players within that sector that have really impressed me. I guess the beauty of it at the start of a season is I’m sure we are going to unearth more brilliant young talented English players which is really exciting for me.”

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