Roger Uttley: Big decisions will shape rugby union's future

Former England captain Roger Uttley argues the current game is a far cry from the one he knew, and ponders the way forward

David Rogers/Getty Images Nigel Wray, the owner of Saracens
Nigel Wray, the owner of Saracens

Rugby is rapidly moving away from the game that I played in and grew up with, a point illustrated by an interview with Saracens owner Nigel Wray in a national newspaper this week.

Among other things he talked about the growing influence of TV deals, and the effect this is having on the relationships between the clubs and their own union.

It is also at the heart of the ongoing debate about the future of the European competitions.

These changes are going to take place and there is an inevitable impetus moving them forward, but it is totally different from the amateur ethos that brought about the development of the game in the first place.

You cannot stop things progressing and there is no reason why you should, but if TV rights are the driving force behind a lot of the big decisions currently being debated we are looking at a totally different game in the future.

For somebody of my vintage and experience this is a sad prospect. Now everything is judged on having to win.

If you are not in the top four or six you don’t get into the European competition (if indeed such a competition exists in the future).

If you are not winning you are deemed not to be successful.

If you are not successful you don’t get the gates, and less people want to support a team simply because they are their local club.

Where is the future in that?

When rugby union chose to go professional this pathway was always going to be the direction in which the game was headed, and if you sup with the devil you have got to play to his tune.

The big story now is how the International Rugby Board and various national unions who govern the game deal with this issue, and how it is resolved. Are they going to remain in control of the sport?

Investors in professional clubs who have contributed a lot of money to the development of the pro game want to have a greater say in how the sport is run.

Disturbing questions are being raised about the effect of the upcoming World Cup on the club game and what level of compensation the clubs can expect to receive when they release their players to the national side, and also for the disruption it will cause to the league programme with the ensuing loss of revenue. Even more disturbing is the prospect of clubs not releasing their players if an agreement can’t be reached.

There are some very wise and sage people at the RFU, but this is a typical dilemma you are going to get when a traditional association governed by elected people is involved – even if that body includes a paid executive arm.

The clubs and the union are closely linked together, and they have to have a positive relationship.

They are mutually dependent on one another with the money the clubs have received from the RFU for England’s use of their players, and when England does well the clubs have in turn benefited from that success through an increased interest in the game.

Twickenham can sell out for virtually all of its international matches, and sides like Harlequins can fill it for big club games.

But it is what the likes of Newcastle are able to do and how you maintain that regional representation at the top level, rather than just a concentrated number of small superstar clubs.

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