Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Why the privately owned Club model is better for the global game than the Union run model

imageThere are two diverging philosophies in the European club battle, one from the privately backed domestic game in England, France and the Welsh regions, the other from the Union run domestic game backed by the IRFU, SRU and WRU (who want more control over the regions). Here we say, from the perspective of the global game, who it would be preferable to triumph.

Since professionalism, the founding 8 members of the IRB have established a clique known as "Tier 1" and safeguarded themselves significant financial and competitive advantages over the rest of the world in doing so. Only 2 nations in Italy and Argentina have managed to gain acceptance into this clique and gained access to the safeguarded privileges.

The gap between this Tier 1 clique and the rest of the rugby world widened as professionalism really kicked in and the benefits came into force around the early 2000's. The gap was probably at its largest around the 2003-2006 period, a nadir for the Tier 2 nations that saw their chances to compete with the Tier 1 clique cut back.

After Argentina's RWC upset over
Ireland. 11 of their squad won
their first professional contracts
over the next 12 months, starting
a trend that would shape the
history making 2007 side.
The exception though was Argentina. They were the lone team outside the 6 Nations and Tri Nations who managed to achieve genuine success. And there is a clear and obvious reason as to why they did.

Back in the amateur era Argentina had virtually no players abroad, which had less of an impact back then as they were only competing against other amateurs. At the time of the 1999 World Cup, the Pumas had 6 of their 30 man squad with professional experience abroad, these being their leading players Lisandro Arbizu (Brive), Agustín Pichot and Rolando Martín (Richmond) and the props Grau, Reggiardo and Hasan. Those players helped the Pumas record a landmark upset win over Ireland to reach the quarter final, perhaps the most important win in Argentine rugby history as it went onto to shape the next generation of players.

Following that win, waves of Argentines joined the ranks of clubs in France or England. 11 more of the squad went pro over the next 12 months, and in the end 22 of the squad played professionally in Europe at some point in their careers.

This trend continued and by the time of the 2007 World Cup, 26 of the 30 man squad had professional experience abroad (3 others signed straight after the tournament). That squad created history finishing 3rd at the tournament, an achievement so substantial it couldn't be ignored and led to them eventually got added to the Tri Nations in 2012.

Canada adapted poorly to the
professionalising of rugby and a
decade on from beating England,
Wales and France in 1993/94 they
were losing heavily.
A contrast to how Argentina fared is Canada. They too were reasonably competitive in the 1990's and early 2000's. They notably reached a World Cup quarter final in 1991, and recorded wins over England and Wales in 1993, France in 1994, drew to Ireland in 2000 and beat Scotland in 2002. However after that, their results fell away from 2003 onwards as the Tier 1 sides pulled away and started larruping them. Just 6 years after beating Scotland, in 2008 they lost 41-0 to them, they have not been asked back after that tour. That period cost them and others the chance to play Tier 1 teams.

The key difference between Canada and Argentina is that one adapted and sent players en masse to play professionally in France and to a lesser extent England, whilst one didn't. In the Canada 2007 World Cup squad, their only ever one where they've left not winning a game, there was far less depth of players with solid professional careers in Europe, and they were left relying on aged players like Mike James, Morgan Williams, Rod Snow and Jon Thiel, all of whom retired after the tournament and sent Canada into a deep rebuilding phase (they have now got back on track under Kieran Crowley).

A nation that has followed a similar path to Argentina is Georgia. When they made their World Cup debut in 2003 most of the players were based at home, but after that World Cup demand for Georgians in France exploded and by 2007 most of the team were based there, and now they could now field two entire packs from the Top 14 or Pro D2.

It's no coincidence that since exporting such quantity of players to France (there are now 39 Georgians in Top 14 or Pro D2 squads) they have become the dominant European force outside the 6 Nations, winning 6 of the last 7 ENC titles, and they are now far closer in performance Tier 1 than they are to Uruguay, who they lost to in the 2003 World Cup.
Embedded image permalink
Georgia have been perhaps the
fastest rising nation in world
rugby. After their World Cup
debut in 2003, they exported
players heavily to France and now
have won 6 ENC titles in 7 years.

The Georgians have improved following a model similar to Argentina's, but unlike them are held back as they don't get the same regular bunch of Tier 1 fixtures outside the World Cup (just 1 in over 10 years) as they emerged as those matches were being cut back. Those Tier 1 fixtures are important so as to help a competitive side improve, but as proved before they would have been of little use like they were in the 2003-2006 period if they weren't competitive.

So there is clear evidence to suggest that sides not yet in the position of not being economic powerhouses or without yet a sufficiently high standard domestic league can still become competitive through following something similar Argentina model of exporting players.

The Argentina model does come with downsides, most notably with loss of power in terms of preparation time and player release. Argentina played the British & Irish Lions without a host of French based players in 2005, and played matches with far less time together than Tier 1 nations.

Georgia have had similar issues, in particular in the June window and player release for Top 14 players, they toured North America in 2012 with a near third choice pack and for their game against Argentina last June they had less than ideal preparation. This is annoying for Georgian fans, but the alternative of players stuck in the Georgian league the full team would mean they would never be good enough to compete in the big World Cup matches. They need their players to have the training and exposure to the intensity of playing Top 14 rugby, just compare World Cup results 2003 and 2011.
The French professional domestic
system gives opportunities to 231
players from outside the Tier 1
clique, with an average of 7.7 per
squad. The Irish pro domestic
system is the only one that doesn't
employ a single international
from outside the Tier 1 clique.

Now excluding the Pacific Islanders, there are in total as of writing 173 players from outside the Tier 1 clique playing in the major professional leagues in Europe the Top 14, Pro D2 (France), Premiership, Championship (England) or Rabo Pro12 (Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales). There are a further 164 from the three Pacific Islands.

Of those 173 players, 124 of them are based in France (average 4.1 per side) and 37 in England (average 1.5 per side). Throw the Pacific Islanders into that and the average French Top 14/Pro D2 squad has 7.7 players from outside the Tier 1 clique, and the English 3.3. Compare that to the amount of players in the Union run Pro12 sides, the Irish professional domestic system is the only one in world rugby that doesn't have any Tier 2 internationals.
The French and English model, with private investment sustains more teams geared more towards themselves as opposed others, this leads to more opportunities for the rest of the world and is what gave Argentina the chance to break the Tier 1 barrier.

The Union run teams are heavily reliant on international rugby for their income. As a result, the domestic side of the game is geared towards the needs of the international one. With the amount of teams lessened to increase the standard and with restrictions on foreign players. This model offers much more preparation time and control over the players for their national teams, and has worked very well especially in the cases of Ireland and New Zealand.

However if every nation applied that model there would be no world game, Argentina and Georgia would simply not have emerged into the forces they are now, and they are just two of several others who would have not got nearly as competitive. They have fewer teams that mean fewer spots for foreign players, and with less there, there is less willingness to give a chance to a player outside a less established nation.
COLOMBIA - The Colombia national football team, prior to their World Cup qualifier against Peru, on June 11, 2013. (Ricardo Mazalan/AP)
Colombia 4th in the FIFA World
rankings. Would they have stood a
chance of getting so high without
the training and game time at
elite clubs around the world?

There is a comparison to be made with football, the widest spread sport in the world and one where a nation like Colombia can be ranked 4th, Uruguay 6th, Croatia 16th, Ivory Coast 17th and Bosnia & Herzegovina 19th. All of those nations have most of their players abroad; the current 24 man Colombia squad has just 4 players based in Colombia. Now would they be as competitive if it was reversed and instead there were just 4 players playing abroad? How good would Ivory Coast be if nearly all their players were playing in the Côte d'Ivoire Premier Division instead of the elite European leagues such as France or England? The likelihood is they wouldn't be as strong without most of the squad having chances to train and play at the highest level.

The success of the club game in football has led to more nations able to compete in the international one. Football might risk being dominated by the major nations like Spain, England, France, Brazil and others if they all used their domestic system as a method more towards the goals of their national teams (which they can't do as they would have no chance of running a Union model against the wealth of the owners in that sport, and if the French and English win the Union model may not be of use in rugby much longer as well).
If a system like the IRFU or NZRU
was in place everywhere.
Argentina would have never
emerged. Rugby would be more
like Test Match cricket in terms
of a global game.

A sport at the other end of the spectrum is cricket. Similar to rugby there is a clique of leading nations, and minnows that rarely play them outside the World Cup. The international game is extremely dominant, and provides a far larger amount of revenue which results in a domestic game geared more towards national teams (only exception being some recent Twenty20 tournaments).

The global game in rugby is a bit of a mix between cricket and football, the efforts to grow the game are not bad as cricket, but if it wasn't for the more football like domestic model of the French then it might be just 8/9 dominant competitive teams set in stone for good. That’s not saying the French clubs are generous philanthropists with a heartfelt desire to spread the game, just that the system they operate aids a meaningful way of doing so in a way that Ireland's for example doesn't. Again in Ireland and other Union dominated models, they aren't doing anything wrong, just that their system is good for them, but cricket-esque for the global game.

With the French and English club system bringing in ever larger TV deals in comparison to the Pro12 (the Top 14 TV deal is just under £60m, the Premiership £27m whilst the Pro12 deal with Union run sides is worth less than £10m). And there is still potential for the Top 14 to grow further, the new French TV deal is a similar amount (without considering inflation) to the initial Sky deal for the Premier League deal from 1992, which has grown colossally ever since.
Could the model IRFU has been
so successful with over the past 15
years become uncompetitive and
outdated with the sharp increase
in money in the French league?

The Unions like the IRFU and WRU who have or want Union run sides are as a result very worried about losing their control to the clubs, they claim France "is in danger of killing European rugby", in reality it is in danger of killing their Union model as opposed to rugby. As the French get richer and if they win the war over European revenue streams, the chance that the Irish model for example can compete without private investment and relying on mostly the international game (85% of Irish revenues) lessens.

And as we have seen, the privately run model is the better one for the competitiveness of the global game. It’s been evident in other sports and without it, we could have a cricket scenario of 8/9 top teams with Argentina never having made it and the current Tier 2 nations fighting a lost cause. The fact is that system has done a lot more for the global game than the Union model has.

Along with the fact that the privately owned system in Europe gives opportunities around 323 players at an average of 5.5 per team from outside the Tier 1 nations to become elite pro rugby players, and the Union model in Europe gives opportunities to around 10 players at an average of 1.4 per team, there is still yet more evidence to suggest which system is better for the global game.

For a start the Union led ERC organisation has dealt incompetently towards the nations outside the 6 Nations, the Rabo Pro12 CEO has been bluntly uncomplimentary comments towards Georgia, the IRFU CEO subtly rebuked the idea of a more global game and the WRU CEO recently went on a UKIP style "stealing our jobs" rant on behalf of France, denouncing Georgians making a career there. All may have valid points, but only from the point of view of their system and this an article about what is best for game beyond Tier 1, more power to characters like John Feehan and Roger Lewis is not it. The personnel in charge of the Union argument simply do not promote good policies for the rest of Europe.

The only body throughout this battle to give much of a mention to Europe outside the 6 Nations is the LNR and FFR. They put forward a UEFA style European governing body, which would be a hugely positive development for the rest of Europe as it would mean that the 6 Nations would have to care about them as part of their job.

For the reasons noted above, from the point of view of the worldwide game, on the whole it would be for the best for the club argument backed by PRL, LNR and RRW to win the blazer war against the Unions argument.


  1. Football World Cup has the qualification system even for the winner
    Basketball World Cup nations has to play qualification except the Olympics gold team
    Many rugby nations can skip the qualification

  2. Interesting post. Thank you for this blog on Tier 2 nations and your professional articles about georgian rugby. Unfortunately, all rugby web-portals write only about the Tier 1 nations and you try to fill the gap. I also hope that rugby will become a more global game with millions of faithful fans through the globe.

  3. Graham20133/3/14 9:35 am

    Not sure I agree with all of this, but a really thought-provoking article and most of all I am pleased to find someone else genuinely interested in international rugby outside the clique of "traditional" nations.

    We are trying to make sure we have full coverage of all nations' stats at and would be interested to discuss the potential for collaboration.

    I wanted to send a PM to the author about this, but can't find any contact details. I am


  4. There seem to be a few decent North Americans in the British leagues at the moment. Manu Samoa at Northampton and Blaine Scully at Leicester spring to mind. To be regular starters in such tough squads is no mean feat. Pleasingly both, to the best of my knowledge, are US born and raised.
    For their 2013 Autumn internationals at least 9 US players were playing pro in Europe, mostly England with a few in France (I have no idea how complete a line up this was TBH). It would be great if the English Prem could do for USA and Canada what France has done for Georgia and Romania.
    While everyone is already wary of the Pacific islanders and Georgia come a world cup, hopefully the US might provide a bit of an ambush for an overly complacent team?

  5. Great article. Fully agree that club's "selfishness" has run on of hiring players who are cheaper for their quality, which means chances for players from "tier 2" nations who don't carry the wages premium that "tier 1" players have.

    Blaine Scully plays for my club, Leicester, and he is a great example of a solid winger who would not get a chance without the "selfish" club system.

    Just need PRL/RFU to relax their sieve like restrictions on foreigners. New Zealanders basically have a genetic lottery based on whether it was their grandparents or great grandparents emigrated to the country. The positive EQP money means quotas are out dated. If 3 full blooded Canadians are what a side wants they might as well have them.

  6. One of the biggest delusions of those in singing the Union argument is that the clubs are "selfish". They either don't realise or forget that the Unions are equally selfish and self interested just like all the parties in this power struggle are.

    Even this article, from the point of view of the rest of Europe, is interested on behalf of those nations. It is about greed and money as this is professional sport. And in this case, the self interested privately owned club model offers better for them and the players than the self interested Unions.

    There are downsides for the USA as they won't get so much control over Scully on availability with Leicester. But ultimately at World Cups they'll have a better player, and personally for him he will be able to make money for his family.

  7. Yup, both Manoa and Scully are born n bred 'Mericans! There are some funny anecdotes around the Saints squad about the cultural misunderstandings between Manoa and the rest of the squad. USA are a sneaky bet to be Tier 2 darlings of 2015.

  8. Very brillant analyse of current situation.

  9. Grant A Cole11/7/14 2:56 pm

    The USAR NT culture does not possess a winning attitude right now. While individual players have great attitudes and work ethic, the executive management above the coaches do not project a vision of winning more than they lose that translates into cohesion, nor is the current management team capable of formulating such a vision.

    Tier 2 nations are changing into counties that either have professional or high-performance competitions OR have a vast majority of their players in professional competitions somewhere in the world. Tier 3 nations are fighting to catch up with this paradigm shift.

  10. Kevin Higginson24/11/14 9:02 pm

    A franchise model could be successful as long as tier 2 nationals are supported in their development, (so they play in top franchises, but made available for national team).
    In fact, a structured season would mean players could be released to national teams en bloc after club season.

    The plan would be to have a set of franchises based on fan base and stadia, and good business plan, across Europe and also in Super Rugby.
    The NFL is Looking to expand and are looking at the best cities for expansion using fan base as basis for which City, see, nfl expansion

    Also, we need to use the idea of less is more with matches.

    1) less matches, so more people will attend a match, less choice.
    2) top players more availability

    Maybe have a season of 20-24 matches ( down from current 32- 38), then add in season of 12 internationals, would give top players 32-36 matches a season.