It is an idea that pre-dates the genesis of professional rugby, almost 30 years ago. Why not bring the various threads of provincial and club rugby in the UK and Ireland together within the same league?
If the host unions, particularly those in England and Wales, had been on the ball in 1996 they might have moved more quickly to maintain administrative control of the game. As it was, splinter factions developed.
Private ownership grasped the nettle first in those two countries, and the chance was lost. The existing amateur apparatus, and standards of governance it embodied were simply not equipped to run a professional game. Professional entrepreneurs, who knew (or thought they knew) how to run a club as a business moved in. ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’, as the saying goes.
The WRU has struggled ever since to regain control of an ailing sport in Wales, while the relationship between the RFU and English Premiership Rugby has at best represented an uneasy truce, and at worst a divisive civil war across the Severn. Read any account of Sir Clive Woodward’s World Cup victory in 2003 and you will know that it was achieved despite, rather than because of the club environment that surrounded the national team.
Woodward was never likely to survive for a third term in office as England’s head coach, and left abruptly in 2004, only 11 months after England’s Everest had been conquered at Stadium Australia in Sydney.
“It was fantastic to win but it was clear to me from the moment that plane landed [on England’s return from Australia] I felt totally out of control,” Woodward said after returning home.
“My mindset was we had a clear plan of how we were being successful and that has been watered down…
“I cannot compromise. Winning is about inches. We won the World Cup by inches. You cannot compromise.
“We prepared properly. But agreements have taken place between the RFU and clubs that on paper look great. They’re not in reality.”
The picture looked no different from the other side of the fence: “Now it’s our turn,” said one grim-faced English club chairman after the temporary bounce provided by a World Cup triumph had come and gone, with the seeds of domestic development it contained falling on stony ground.
At national level, English rugby went swiftly into reverse gear, with one nadir at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand followed by a humiliating new rock-bottom four years later, when the home side failed to progress out of the group stages at their own tournament.
The four main coaches who were pilloried after the 2015 World Cup disaster have gone on to experience great success outside their homeland.
The IP of knowledgeable rugby men was lost so systematically that it looked almost intentional. Sir Clive has not been spotted in a professional rugby coaching role since the 2005 British and Irish Lions debacle; his main cohorts, Phil Larder and Andy Robinson, had disappeared by 2006, before the World Cup in France ever started.
Two other key luminaries, kicking coach Dave Alred and fitness guru Dave Reddin migrated to other sports. Alred gravitated towards the technical and psychological support role he provided for the best golfers in the world, and Reddin became the Head of Performance for Team GB before 2012, creating the springboard for the most successful Olympic performance of all time by a British team.
Likewise, the four main coaches who were pilloried after the 2015 World Cup disaster have gone on to experience great success outside their homeland. All of Stuart Lancaster, Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree and Mike Catt have enjoyed most of the best days of their rugby coaching lives in Ireland.
Farrell was appointed as the defensive assistant to Joe Schmidt in 2016, the same year that Lancaster joined Leinster as Senior Coach. He was Warren Gatland’s defensive coach on two successful Lions tours (2013 to Australia and 2017 to New Zealand), and has since taken Ireland to the top spot in the world rankings after becoming head coach in 2020.
Lancaster has been quietly manufacturing most of the bullets Farrell’s Ireland has to fire. The Dublin province won five major championships between 2017 and 2023, as the man of Cumbria patiently built the most consistent provincial machine anywhere on planet rugby. Leinster are at the tip of innovation in the world game on both sides of the ball, and regularly supply 11 or 12 starters to Farrell’s national side.
Now Graham Rowntree has joined them at the summit of the game, moving from the relative shadows of the backroom as a lifelong scrum and forwards assistant coach, to succeed Johan van Graan as head coach at Munster at the start of the current season. He promptly added some silverware to the bulging trophy cabinet at Thomond Park, winning the URC title.
It is the first time an Irish province has won the competition in the stronger format with South African ex-Super Rugby franchises included, and they did it the hard way, winning three matches on the road against Glasgow, Leinster and the Stormers.
All the coaching staff from 2003 and 2015 – and the IP associated with them – have been lost to the domestic game in England. It is high time the rifts were healed and English rugby gives itself another chance. Wasps and Worcester have collapsed financially, and they may very well be followed by London Irish in the coming week. The URC and the Top 14 in France are moving ahead of the Gallagher Premiership as the leading brands in Europe – both on the field, and in terms of the attraction they offer broadcasters and sponsors.
Why does English Premiership Rugby not consider the idea of joining the United Rugby Championship, in order to build a ‘King of the North’ to rival the professional game in France? At the very least, it would generate a reciprocal flow of coaching traffic. A new league format could also create the opportunity for the RFU to regain more administrative control of the professional game in England.
Under Rowntree’s stewardship the new [Munster] has chosen to embrace risk in order to catch up to the Leinsters of the world.
The URC final between the Stormers and Munster illustrated just how far Graham Rowntree has progressed as a rugby coach, even if he had to do it by leaving ‘Blighty’. Before moving into the head coaching role at Thomond Park, Rowntree had been known mostly for the typical traits of a Welford Road ex-player: he was cussed, tough, and devoted to an all-powerful set-piece and breakdown effort.
That would have suited the old Munster mentality admirably, but under Rowntree’s stewardship the new iteration has chosen to embrace risk in order to catch up to the Leinsters of the world; to expand the range of its play further, rather than contracting it. Travel does indeed broaden the mind.
In the URC final, the team showed true Rowntree grit to survive the loss of their influential skipper Peter O’Mahony to injury after only 34 minutes, and they played 20 minutes of the second period one man short. But they went a whole lot further than that.
The team from the west coast of Ireland dominated possession of the ball, grabbing the lion’s share of 42 minutes of ball-in-play time overall (23.5 minutes), winning the line-break count by eight to three, and forcing the home side to make 200 total tackles in the game.
In the process, they limited the attacking opportunities of the Stormers’ deadly playmaking duo of Manie Libbok at No 10 and Damian Willemse at No 15, forcing them to defend in the backfield against the Munster kicking game instead. That was one important battle the men in red knew they could win.
Munster not only deprived Libbok and Willemse of the ball, they also attended in detail to the sub-plots within the overall attacking ‘story’ that the Stormers’ flyhalf presents when he does have it.
In the round of 16 in the Heineken Champions Cup, the diminutive outside-half had established the lethal accuracy of his short attacking kicks, and he had done it early doors:
It is rare enough to find a kicker who can measure the kick-pass with such meticulous exactitude. It is rarer still to discover one with the delicacy of touch to control the bounce by imparting back-spin to the ball after it hits grass. The combination of a flat kicking trajectory getting the ball to the wide channels quickly, and a controlled bounce dropping it into the hands of a chaser so neatly gave the Harlequins’ defence entirely too many problems to handle.
Munster began by demonstrating that they had the answers to the questions Libbok would pose in only the first two minutes of the match:
The Munster full-back Mike Haley is defending high upfield in the first instance to cover the prod in behind the line, while there is nowhere for the kick-pass to land with real profit in the second. Even if the kick hits the chaser in stride there will be zero options for centre Ruhan Nel after he gathers the ball in, with three red defenders in the area.
The same pattern was repeated later in the half:
Over the course of the game, Libbok only converted one of his five short kicking opportunities, and the sole success provided a timely reminder that any loss of concentration in defence would cost Munster dearly:
On this occasion, Libbok gets the weight of grubber just right, and Haley is forced to bring down the chaser (wing Angelo Davids) without the ball. That drew a yellow card from the referee and ten minutes in the sin-bin for the fullback.
One of the greats arts of winning at this level of competition is to convert your opponent’s strengths into weaknesses, then use their own weapons of choice against them. Nothing is more dispiriting for an opponent than watching their own armaments being turned around and trained on their former owners:
In the first example, Willemse and Libbok get themselves into a proper backfield tangle after the kick through by Haley, in the second Munster wing Calvin Nash regathers the ball over none other than the Stormers’ kick-pass expert himself to score the go-ahead try. The ball even has Libbok’s trademark back-spin on it as it jags back over his head and into Nash’s grateful arms.
With two stakeholders, Worcester and Wasps, having already gone into administration, and London Irish looking likely to follow them, the English Gallagher Premiership is hanging on by its fingernails: the remaining clubs are feeling the pinch, having to let go of high-quality players they would rather keep and restrict their star signings for 2023-2024.
The Premiership is under pressure from the burgeoning success of the URC and the Top 14. All the perceived coaching failures at the World Cup in 2015 have moved on to far greater things in the emerald isle, whether it is Stuart Lancaster at Leinster, Graham Rowntree at Munster or Andy Farrell and Mike Catt with Ireland. They always had the talent to succeed but were discarded.
In an earlier generation, proven coaching success stories from the World Cup victory in 2003 were also either lost to the game in England or migrated to other sports. It begs an overwhelming question about just why English rugby cannot keep and develop its best coaching talent domestically.
One long-term solution for the Premiership clubs is to join the United Rugby Championship. That might present an opportunity for the RFU to stake its claim in the administration of the English professional game, and create easier pathways for those coaching ‘wild geese’ to find their way home. Two divisions of 12 teams apiece with promotion and relegation, anyone?
‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’ said the poet John Donne. A little less insularity might give the game in England a lot more hope for the future.