State of the (Rugby) Union

Patrick Jack looks at the current expansion plans in rugby union and what this means for the future of the sport.

Earlier this year, UEFA reported that the Six Nations was the highest attended sporting event in the world, with an average attendance of 72,000. Yet just this week, Claude Atcher, the head of France’s bid to host the 2023 World Cup, has said “if we don’t do anything, in five to ten years…I think rugby will die.” 

Atcher told the Guardian that only England and France are making a profit from the sport while many other countries are losing millions every year. That even includes the peerless All Blacks and their merchandise machine. 

Traditionally played by just a select few nations around the world, many believe there is potential to expand into East Asia and North America. However, these lofty ambitions of globalising rugby have been met by growing problems: one-sided defeats on the field, bureaucratic problems off of it, and poor attendance in the stands.

Premiership Rugby’s possible expansion

With American football growing ever more popular in the UK – the NFL plans to hold four (sell-out) games in London this autumn – global demand for sport is at an all-time high. Perhaps buoyed by this successful crossover, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) hopes to create a transatlantic tournament by drafting in one of America’s professional outfits into a newly formatted Anglo-Welsh Cup. Ireland’s historic victory over New Zealand last year in front of 62,000 fans in Chicago shows the potential of the ‘Special Relationship’ broadening to include rugby, but things may not be as easy as hoped. 

The English Premiership played its first overseas game in 2015 with a contest between Saracens and London Irish, held in New Jersey. In the 25,000 capacity Red Bull Arena, the attendance of just under 15,000 was similar to last year’s average for a Premiership fixture. When Saracens returned to the States to play the Newcastle Falcons this year, the two sides filled just 6,000 seats in Philadelphia. The Premiership hopes to be selling out these stadiums by the time of the next fixture in 2018 but doubts remain, especially with the games being poorly advertised in the US.

Super Rugby exiles join the Pro 14

While England mulls over a future expansion, the downsides have already been made clear by the Southern Hemisphere’s Super Rugby competition. With a long history of gradual expansion, it was little surprise when they included the first South American and Asian teams in 2016. Following some heavy defeats for the new sides, three teams were removed (the Cheetahs and Kings of South Africa and Western Force of Australia) to increase competition again. 

As a result, the two South African teams were shoe-horned into the 2017/18 Pro14, just one month before the season began. Alongside the initial flurry of excitement, many people assumed the Cheetahs and the Kings might compete for the title. This was quickly proved wrong. The Cheetahs suffered a 42-19 defeat against Ulster in their opening fixture before Leinster put the Kings to the sword 31-10. While the results are troubling, the attendance is even more so; just 3,000 people showed up in Port Elizabeth.

Growing problems

This last-minute inclusion has also led to some unforeseen problems. Two other people not in attendance at the Nelson Mandela Stadium were Leinster’s captain Isa Nacewa and Jamison Gibson-Park. Neither player could enter South Africa as the club forgot to apply for their visas. The Ospreys travel to Bloemfontein to play the Cheetahs on September 30th, but this is the same day, and venue, that South Africa is due to encounter Australia. Finally, the Cheetahs are still taking part in the Currie Cup, South Africa’s most prestigious domestic competition. As such, the Toyota Cheetahs (the tournament holders) could potentially be playing in two competitions right until the end of October. 

Like the Aviva Premiership, the Pro14 hopes to expand further by adding an American, Canadian or German team in the coming years. This will only be possible if this first phase of expansion goes a little smoother. These 12,000 mile away game trips put a huge strain on athletes and the bank balance of their supporters. Premiership players can expect to earn an average wage of £200,000 but they are being asked to play longer with fewer breaks for the elite. Premiership Rugby aims to extend the season to ten months but may risk an unprecedented player strike if they do so. As the organising bodies attempt to extract more money abroad, they risk alienating both players and fans at home. 

Looking to the future

There are reasons to be optimistic, for the moment at least. The Cheetahs have won their last two games (against Zebre and a Lions-less Leinster) and now sit third in Conference A of the Pro14. Perhaps more encouraging was the attendance of almost 14,000 against the Italians. 

In the 46,000 seater Free State stadium, this probably looked small when seen on television but it actually set the record for the largest opening attendance in the competition since it began in 2001. Johann Muller, former captain of both South Africa and Ulster, should have perfect insight into this problem. He told BBC Sport that the South African players have been competing non-stop for the last six months and have gone straight into the Pro 14 without a break, saying “it will take them time to bed in.” Only time will tell if the performances of the players and the enthusiasm of the fans will turn things around.

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