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"Not our problem": Looking after rugby’s struggling nations is everyone’s problem

By Dan Johansson
The two teams pray at the conclusion of their match

The saga revolving the perilous finances of Samoa (and indeed other Pacific Island unions) rumbled on this week, as the RFU issued a strongly worded statement denying that they should be responsible for clearing up what they see as very much a World Rugby mess.

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The English union were particularly vocal about feeling pressured to contribute £75,000 as a “goodwill gesture” to the bankrupt Samoan organisation and called on World Rugby to take active steps to fix the situation. World Rugby for their part have disputed Chief Executive (and Prime Minister) Tuila’epa Sailele Malielegaoi’s claims that the union is bankrupt, citing record investment by the governing body.

So far, so understandable. Samoa are of course responsible for managing their own financial situation, and the precise purpose of national unions is to work for the betterment of that nation. The RFU are technically correct when they say that they are not responsible for solving other people’s problems.

However, being technically correct isn’t quite good enough.

Contrary to the RFU’s assertions, it’s simply not the case that tier one nations have no responsibility for the financial stability of poorer unions. Whilst they may have no legal obligation to do so, the RFU’s adamant claims that they will not foot the bill for other nations leaves something of a bitter taste in the mouth. As one of the richest sporting organisations in the world, the RFU absolutely can afford to share the wealth for the long-term benefit of rugby as a whole. £75,000 ahead of the Twickenham clash was a nice gesture, but it pales in comparison to the £10 million they made on the day. When you consider that less than 1% of match day takings went to the opposition, supposedly one of the most beloved traditional rugby nations, suddenly long-standing issues of elitism and class divides raise their ugly heads.

I’m well aware that I’m biased here by my lefty luvvie leanings, but when established unions are struggling to get by, it is baffling that the RFU can invest £120million in a world cup campaign. Of course, the RFU’s onus is to look after themselves, and given that the number one prize in world rugby is the Webb Ellis cup, it makes complete sense that England will throw all their resources at it. However, the clear gap between the haves and have-nots is not good for the long-term health of rugby and needs to be addressed before it gets any worse.

I’ve written several times before about the problems with chucking large sums of money around in a sport that hasn’t got the infrastructure to support it. I’ll admit that too much time living in Sweden has made me develop a pretty negative view on the laissez-faire capitalist approach to rugby (as well as a newfound penchant for kanelbullar and glögg), but too many clubs and unions are focused on short-term success to the point where the sport is becoming dangerously unstable.

It’s all a matter of priorities. The RFU withdrew full-time XVs contracts for the Women’s side as they wished to focus their financial efforts on the sevens game. They then announced the aforementioned £120million for the men’s world cup campaign, and the simple reason for this is because the RFU does not see women’s rugby as a priority, or at least not one on anywhere near the same level as the men’s game. Could a million or two have been divested from that world cup fund to go towards full-time contracts for women players? Probably. Should it be? That all depends on how you prioritize things. It works the same way in this instance. The RFU could afford to sacrifice some of their vast riches if it meant making rugby a more sustainable enterprise across the world.

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The RFU absolutely has a point when it says that World Rugby should be doing more to address the root cause of the situation. Financial handouts are a short-term fix and one that won’t benefit Samoa in any meaningful sense until holes are plugged and the reasons behind the collapse are sorted out. I’m certainly not denying that the ultimate responsibility for issues affecting the sport lie with World Rugby and that it would set a dangerous precedent if the onus for fixing the problems was shifted onto the unions. England’s players quite understandably opted not to share their £22,000 match fees with their Samoan counterparts because they saw this as a political issue, and the Samoan players for their part did not want to be recipients of reluctant charity and instead wanted the crisis resolved at the higher level.

So if England are not responsible for supporting poorer unions financially, how is any of this their problem? Well, the simple fact is that richer unions, directly and indirectly, contribute to the ongoing wealth gap by prioritising their own bank balance over the global health of the sport. The fact that England hasn’t played a single test in the Pacific Islands in the professional era is, to quote Clive Woodward, “embarrassing and wrong”. In a system where home sides pocket effectively every penny of match day takings, by refusing to travel to developing nations they are reinforcing the financial status quo. Not only that, but no end of tier one nations have poached players from around the world, lured by the monetary clout to the detriment of their own national sides. It’s simply not enough for wealthy unions to wash their hands of responsibility when they have benefited from the structural inequalities in the sport for so long.

The RFU are not the only ones in this position of course. New Zealand, France and plenty of other unions have enjoyed the luxury of practices which, whilst it may be unfair to say exploit, certainly disadvantage pacific nations. Rugby as a whole needs to take a step back and examine what it wants its future to look like. Throwing some cash at struggling nations isn’t the answer. But if rugby union truly wants to be a globally competitive (and sustainable) sport, it needs to start addressing the structural issues that have allowed this crisis to evolve. For rugby to have a future, all nations need to come together and work for the greater good. It’s not one organisation’s responsibility, it’s everyone’s.

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William 2 hours ago
All Blacks vs England takeaways: Richie Who? Time for Cortez

Correct analysis of Perofeta’s bungling of the try opportunity Ben. Never ‘fixed’ Steward as he came across in defence and passed too early. Steward didn’t have to break his stride and simply moved on to pressure Telea. Never scanned the easier option of passing to the two supporting players on the inside. Beauden Barrett showed how it is done when he put Telea in for his try. Another point from the game is that the rush defence is hard to maintain as the number of phases increases. From scrums the defensive line only contains backs who all have roughly the same pace. Once forwards are involved, the defence has players with variable speeds often leading to a jagged line. It also tends to lose pace overall giving the attack more time and space. Beauden Barrett’s break to set up Telea’s try came because Baxter went in to tackle McKenzie and Steward went out to cover Telea. Barrett has a massive hole to run through, then commits Steward by passing as late as possible and Telea scores untouched. Another comment I would make is that Ben Earl is a good player and generally an excellent defender but he made three significant misses in the series, two of which led to All Black tries. Got stepped by Perofeta in Dunedin for Savea’s try, missed McKenzie in Auckland leading to what should have been a certain try being set up by Perofeta and was one of the tacklers who couldn’t stop Savea in the leadup to Telea’s first try. Perhaps he should contact Owen Farrell to pick up a few tips from ‘tackle school’.

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