Club rugby’s inability to sell itself calls for planning and innovation | Robert Kitson | Sport

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Club rugby’s inability to sell itself calls for planning and innovation | Robert Kitson | Sport
Club rugby’s inability to sell itself calls for planning and innovation | Robert Kitson | Sport


The word final is a relative term in rugby. Leinster’s European Champions Cup victory in Bilbao should logically have represented a high-profile full stop but for many it is not yet the end of the season – far from it. The Premiership and Pro14 have yet to play their semi-finals, the Top 14 final in France is not until 2 June and this summer’s hectic international tour schedule would cause even a travel agent’s head to spin.

Talk to the Champions Cup organisers and they freely admit they would prefer their tournament to mirror football’s Champions League final: a natural conclusion to the season for every club in Europe. As things stand Leinster have just won the ultimate prize but, as with Saracens last year, now have to prove themselves all over again. It is a bit like hosting a royal wedding and then arranging the stag night on the subsequent weekend.

Leaving aside the significant element of roulette it lends to the domestic play-offs – if Munster are not fresher than a battered Leinster this Saturday it will be a miracle – it also has an effect which, left unchecked, threatens the future growth of the entire sport. Undercutting one’s best product by shunting it into a slot in the calendar that dilutes its impact is not what is taught at business school.

It is part of a wider issue: professional club rugby’s curious inability to sell itself better. The past weekend in northern Spain was a fine example of what can happen when the net is thrown a little wider. In addition to blue-clad Irish and Welsh supporters following their own teams, the people of Bilbao and San Sebastián found themselves welcoming everyone from French fans dressed in chicken outfits to a bunch of old farts from Edinburgh University on a reunion weekend. Give or take some of the more excessive hotel prices and travel disruption, spreading the rugby gospel to Spain clearly caught the imagination.

Hopefully it will be the same in Newcastle next year: taking the finals somewhere outside the normal roster of Six Nations venues – Amsterdam, Milan or Munich in 2020, anyone? – may necessitate an extra financial cost but tends to be repaid many times over by the added exposure it brings the sport in places that may otherwise take little notice.

Despite faithful sponsors such as Heineken and Turkish Airlines, there continues to be a sense that club rugby, as a product, should be bigger than it is. For all the fine work done by Sky Sports in covering European rugby over the past two decades – they have been edged out entirely by BT Sport for next season’s tournament – how many of Leinster’s champion XV apart from Johnny Sexton would stand a chance of being identified by the public if they strolled down a busy London street?

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It would be a similar story for many of England’s supposedly best‑known current players. Maybe it is time to sit down with every press officer in Britain and Ireland and, not for the first time, advise them that clubs or coaches who restrict team members from talking to the media or teach them to converse only in mind-numbing robot speak do the players and the game a major disservice. Loosening the PR shackles may even help them perform better: the individual better able to express himself off the field will surely develop into a more mature, confident presence on it.

Instead of clinging to the tried and tested, why not take a risk or two? In Australia something genuinely interesting is happening: the World Series Rugby concept invented by the billionaire West Force owner, Andrew Forrest, is attracting crowds significantly in excess of Super Rugby attendances.

For the second weekend in a row the exiled Western Force drew the biggest crowd in Australia, with 16,323 fans watching them beat a Tongan representative side compared with the 5,283 who watched the Brumbies against the Melbourne Rebels in Canberra. Forrest’s stated mission is to make rugby a more exciting day out and the early signs would suggest he could be on to something.

With the English domestic season set to run into mid-June in future and the Test window due to shift to July, the status quo will shortly be challenged here as well. Sooner rather than later the desire for more South African teams to play in Europe will intensify to the point where it becomes a financial no-brainer. A Champions Cup final involving the Stormers or the Sharks? It might be closer than people think.

As with cricket and golf, it is all part of a wider discussion rugby union should be having with itself. Sporting tastes are changing fast and what happened last year can no longer be tomorrow’s blueprint. The calendar is a vital component but so is calculated innovation. Maybe next season’s replacement for the defunct Anglo-Welsh Cup should be played under different regulations: less kicking permitted, a countdown clock for set pieces, rolling subs or fewer players, an extra on-field official to enforce the offside line properly? Or maybe not. What really matters is recognising the obvious: the traditional northern hemisphere season is too long, frustratingly structured and increasingly ripe for change.

King of the Cotswolds

Confirmation that Danny Cipriani and James Haskell are flying the Wasps’ nest to play for Gloucester and Northampton respectively next season provokes one obvious question: which of the three clubs concerned has done the best piece of business? Their respective league positions next season will provide the ultimate measure but Cipriani’s move to Kingsholm feels like a good move for the player. If the fly-half can light up the Cotswolds and earn the Shed’s instant respect, he will discover there are few more satisfying places in Britain to play rugby.

One to watch

On the subject of Cipriani, this Saturday’s Premiership semi-final between Saracens and Wasps offers a tantalising head-to-head between England’s prodigal No 10 and Owen Farrell, set to lead his country in South Africa next month. Different in style but now with identical goals, this is Cipriani’s chance to show definitively that he can shape major games against top opposition. If Wasps are given the freedom to attack as they can do, it could be the livelier of the two big sporting contests being staged in north London this Saturday.



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