Covid-19 is killing rugby
The sport can survive Covid-19 – but it won’t do so in its current form
When rugby writers start invoking images and utterances from Christopher Isherwood to Albert Camus and Marcel Proust — as some have done in the lockdown — you know these are desperate times.
Not only is there not much to write about for the moment, there may not be much to write about for some time. Our winter pastime, which should be getting nicely under way by now, is being planned as a summer pastime. It may remain dormant even in the next winter if the "national command council" has its way, social distancing being the antithesis to scrumming down. Who knows, Ebrahim Patel may even regard the huge attraction of a British & Irish Lions tour in 2021 as being "unfair competition" to other sports.
When rugby returns to normality, and that could be in years rather than months, the landscape is likely to look very different. The Wallabies, one of world rugby’s superpowers, may no longer even exist. Rugby Australia faces bankruptcy and player mutiny, and is unable to pay its bills with a dwindling income as the pandemic circumscribes its major paymasters, the TV networks and the sponsors. Wealthy European and Japanese clubs are circling to pick off the best of Australia’s players, even as actual play in those countries is being delayed.
A collapse of Australian rugby would also diminish the power of the southern hemisphere, recently undermined by the defeat of its candidate, Agustin Pichot of Argentina, for the chair of World Rugby.
The Six Nations of Europe still call the shots, with two of them, England and France, being dogs wagged by their tails, the clubs.
Already the English clubs have indicated they will reject World Rugby’s temporary law amendments to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmissions. The laws include eliminating reset scrums and choke tackles, introducing an orange card for high tackles (with 15 minutes in the bin) and reducing the "use it" time at mauls from five seconds to three. World Rugby seems as desperate as the aforementioned reporters.
The French and English clubs are the great unknowns in this global rugby confusion. They have been the pet hates of the south, especially SA and New Zealand, some of whose top players have been lured to the north by inflated salaries.
SA Rugby attempted to proscribe participation in Springbok teams of those heading north, but was eventually forced into a humiliating climbdown. It still rankles, which explains some of the tension between the two rugby hemispheres.
The boot, however, may soon be on the other foot. The days of the English and French clubs holding the national unions in their thrall could be numbered. It has always been known, but only recently in these straitened Covid times has it become stark, that many of these clubs are not sustainable.
One of the French Top 14’s weaker clubs, Sporting Agen, has lost its sponsor, the retailer GiFi; others could follow. In many cases, the clubs in England and France have used huge borrowings, or the personal fortunes of their owners, to foot extravagant salary bills.
Mohed Altrad is one such owner. His Montpellier club in France attempted — but for the moment failed — to buy Pieter-Steph du Toit, one of the Springbok heroes of last year’s Rugby World Cup triumph in Japan. Some idea of Altrad’s largesse was Aaron Cruden’s salary before the All Black flyhalf decided to return to New Zealand; he was earning R15m a year. Cruden’s replacement, Springbok Handré Pollard, will reportedly earn R36m a year.
The Bedouin-born Altrad, who is worth almost $3bn, made his money in the cement and construction business. If the world economy, and the building industry, continue to collapse, Altrad’s business may turn out to be like flimsy scaffolding in a hurricane.
Mourad Boudjellal, a publisher of comic books, funds the Toulon club in France’s Top 14 league. It has three South Africans on its books, including Eben Etzebeth, another of the Springbok champions from last year. Boudjellal’s financial future may be more secure; we need some humour in these times of crisis, even if it’s a French comic book.
But for how long can these clubs survive? The French clubs, especially ones like the glamorous Montpellier and Racing 92, who paid All Blacks ace Dan Carter at the Pollard level, have a major ally in the most devious rugby politician since our own Danie Craven. Bernard Laporte is president of the French rugby federation and a strong supporter of the people who put him there — the clubs.
Laporte has impeccable rugby credentials. A scrumhalf of indifferent quality in his playing days, he emerged as one of the game’s great coaches. During his eight years in charge, he took France to four Six Nations titles, including two grand slams. Then he coached Toulon to three European titles.
Notorious as a backroom operator, he engineered what has been described as a "smash and grab" heist at the 11th hour to snatch for France the hosting rights to the 2023 Rugby World Cup from front-runners SA and Ireland. He is especially close to Altrad, helping arrange for the Altrad Group to become the main sponsor on the national team’s jersey. He also arranged for the one-time False Bay scrumhalf Fabien Galthié to become France’s coach. Galthié, who played for the Cape Town club when Nick Mallett was beginning his career as a coach, became France’s captain during Laporte’s coaching reign. Laporte and Galthié have long been close.
Laporte was instrumental in helping Bill Beaumont defeat Pichot in the recent World Rugby election by rallying the Six Nations votes behind the former British & Irish Lions and England captain. When the next election comes around, Beaumont will no longer be eligible and Laporte should be a shoo-in as chair, with the south unlikely to mount a credible challenge.
The Frenchman is not likely to resurrect Beaumont’s old plan of a global Test rugby programme — something the southern hemisphere has been pushing — but could compensate with a world club rugby championship. It has long been Laporte’s dream to arrange such a global league, bringing the Super Rugby teams into a single competition with the main clubs of Europe and even Japan.
That’s always assuming Super Rugby survives. With the way international travel is being restricted and the fragility of Australian rugby, the alliance of SA, Australia, Argentina and New Zealand in Sanzar becomes tenuous. No games, no TV money, no need for an alliance. SA could be forced to fall back on the old Currie Cup, or seek refuge in Europe.
It could also be the end of Laporte’s dreams and plans. The immediate future of rugby, from club level to international, looks bleak across the world. Talk of squeezing in the Rugby Championship, featuring SA, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina, with the European autumn’s tours verges on the delusional, considering how the Covid crisis is escalating.
When the rugby bosses finally face up to the reality of the pandemic they will need to make some hard choices. In many respects it will be like turkeys voting for Christmas.
Even big pay cuts for SA Rugby staff, including players, might not be enough to keep afloat businesses that have become bloated over the years, supported by lavish broadcast revenues.
Suggestions of playing in empty stadiums, as the Bundesliga and Australian rugby league have done and what New Zealand and Australia rugby intends to copy, is an anodyne answer. For the players, such matches will only resemble intense training sessions.
Morné du Plessis, the great Western Province (and Springbok) captain, used to urge fans to deliver their famous "PROOOOVINCE!" chant at Newlands. He said it raised the team’s performance and lifted their spirits, especially in the enervating final quarter of a match. It often did, but try lifting spirits with only a few water carriers and TV cameramen in attendance.