Misinformed, angry, coffee-addled ranting.
After months of harsh, brutal, combative athletic competition, the Rugby World Cup concludes this weekend and to the surprise of basically no-one but my grandmother and this easily startled cat, the final will be contested by the two best teams in the world, New Zealand and Australia. The two will be competing for the prestigious William Webb Ellis cup, and for the right to determine who has the best alcoholism-induced accent. On one side lies the pace, guile and attacking flair of the All Blacks, led by Richie “Penalty-proof” McCaw. On the other, Australia’s threats out wide are supplemented by the breakdown nous and scavenging prowess of messrs Hooper and Pocock. The fact that the portmanteau “Pooper” has been so scarcely used indicates the fearsome potential of the dynamic duo, although this may also to do with the fact that a man who willingly gets arrested at an environmental protest and slags off dickhead politicians clearly does not give a fuck.
But what about matters a little closer to home? Despite assertions to the contrary, the world of rugby does not end with the end of the World Cup. We are a mere couple of weeks into the new Aviva Premiership season, and the good faith engendered by the big rugby shindig appears not to have spread to the domestic game. A big financial brouhaha has threatened to derail the season before it even gets going, like a Lyle Lanley monorail or a tangled up Slinky.
For those who aren’t aware, Rugby Union in this country operates under a Salary Cap. Ostensibly this is designed to keep the still-fledgling sport competitive. After all, the Union variety only became professional in 1995, when Apple stocks were floating around the mid-30s and Pierce Brosnan was still considered a viable James Bond. Up until this point, Rugby Union had remained a strictly amateur competition, where players played purely for the love of the game (and the license to brutalise fellow human beings and be rewarded for it).
Something something hooligan’s sport played by gentlemen something.
Anywho, players were expected to hold down proper jobs in lieu of receiving anything but compensation for lost earnings for their time spent on the field, and despite the odd suggestion here and there of players’ wives receiving six-figure salaries to work as a cleaner for the club, mostly Rugby retained its amateur ethos. After professionalism came in, it was deemed necessary to introduce a salary cap to make sure that clubs with rich owners couldn’t just buy all the best players and eliminate any semblance of competition, the idea being that a level playing field would provide a sustainable model to grow the sport.
However, recently the issue has reared its ugly head, awakening like the kraken from an unacknowledged slumber, as growing speculation mounts that certain clubs have been breaching the cap through various nefarious means. The Premiership governing body did little to assuage concerns with a statement that provided about as much transparency as a North Korean general election. Essentially, they argued that there were “differences of opinion” over whether clubs had broken the cap, and maintained that the “financial agreements” made could not be described as “fines” because “fines” would represent “acknowledged rule-breaking”, and that “no rule-breaking has occurred” being as there was “no right or wrong answer”. You may recognise these statements as “bullshit”.
The idea that the investigation has unearthed no wrong-doing is about as plausible as the idea that a supposedly highly intelligent board of professionals decided of their own accord with no financial incentive whatsoever that a Football World Cup in an openly homophobic desert country with a horrendous human rights record and zero footballing history was a brilliant idea.
Whilst the accusations have been pointed primarily at two clubs in particular, there has been bafflement and unrest across the Rugby landscape as fans and players alike clamour for some openness on an issue that has been compared by many to ‘financial doping’. The worst thing to stomach from a fan’s point of view isn’t the idea that their beloved club may have been guilty of fudging the books somewhat, it’s the idea that this is being hushed up with the flustered silence of someone who’s accidentally walked in on their flatmate masturbating to something really weird. If you need further proof of this, read an extract of what Premiership Rugby head honcho Mark McCafferty had to say in a media conference call:
Despite McCafferty’s silver-tongued smooth talking, the public were less than convinced, leading to several Premiership clubs making statements declaring themselves to have not been one of the clubs under investigation. One suspects that eventually this will lead to all the clubs except the guilty parties having made a declaration and thus forcing some light to be shed on the situation. However an equally likely alternative is for all the clubs to speak up, I’m Spartacus style, leading to us being no closer to an actual solution, but having gained possession of a great deal more bullshit.
Things took an even crazier turn after (as-yet-unfounded) rumblings emerged that the guilty clubs might be suing everyone from other, rule-abiding clubs, to Premiership Rugby, to the European bloody Union over fair competition rules. Then, as if in an attempt to Bastard things up a notch, Bruce Craig the owner of Bath Rugby was supposedly (allegedly, apparently, possibly) in Ireland to discuss the possibility of his club joining the Celtic/Italian Pro12 league. There’s taking your ball and going home, and then there’s leaving the ball behind, packing up all your players and moving to Ireland because sod the fans and fair competition, there are shiny things to be won.
And ultimately, that’s the reason this whole sorry mess has kicked off in the first place. If clubs have been breaching the cap, it’s in order to secure the best players. If they’ve been fiddling with the ledger to secure the best players, it’s in order to win trophies. Rugby clubs, like any other professional sports teams are measured by their success on the field. And if that takes a little bit of deviance off the field, well, many teams would be willing to take that risk. That doesn’t make it okay. As a lifelong rugby fan myself, I’d much rather see a team full of nobodies competing valiantly than overpaid megastars cashing in, winning trophies and then sodding off, leaving behind a crumpled mess of teams that simply can’t compete with the big boys. Not everyone would agree with me on that, and they’re entitled to their opinion.
But Premiership Rugby’s refusal to explain exactly what’s going on, whether legitimate or not, has undermined faith in the sport that so many people love. Fans would forgive the odd breach here and there if there were genuine consequences. But to make people doubt the professionalism and legitimacy of an entire sporting competition is unforgivable.