Ronan O'Gara: Caught between the uncertainty of the present and the risks of the future

Ronan O'Gara: Caught between the uncertainty of the present and the risks of the future

At La Rochelle’s Stade Marcel Deflandre yesterday, we had a detailed meeting about the short- and medium-term financial imperatives for the club. Line by line. There is a provisional start-up date of September 9th for the new Top 14 season, but we have no way of knowing how realistic that is. La Rochelle is one of the better run clubs in the league but securing our future remains a serious challenge.

Because we are community-based, our multi-tier sponsors and loyal supporters are wading deep into this with us and have pledged their support.

Supporters are taking to social media to insist they don’t want their season ticket money back. The goodwill has been incredible. Every bit like that helps.

These things are a lot more serious than some people believe.

It has been proposed this week that the top six in the league, for the purposes of qualification for Europe next season will be decided, not on who actually finished the truncated season in the top six, but rather the top four and then playoffs between fifth and eighth to decide the other two slots. That’s us v Montpellier and Clermont v Toulouse. Hmm.

If that all feels a little bit abstract at the moment, it has nothing on the ambitious proposals floated again this week on a global rugby calendar by the re-elected head of World Rugby Bill Beaumont. There’s a lot of time at the moment for planning and conjuring new models of the rugby calendar. People can strategise and dream. How timely it could be for a number of the game’s progressive leaders to examine the shapes and structures of our game for the next 50 years.

Sam Whitelock mentioned the idea this week of a Crusaders-Munster cross- hemisphere clash. It got my attention. How about a double-header at Twickenham or Croke Park, in front of 80,000 spectators as Leinster play the Hurricanes at 4pm and Munster play the Crusaders at 7pm. Interested now aren’t you?

The broad concept of the proposed global calendar would see the Autumn internationals in October and November, the Six Nations move to April-May, simultaneous with the Rugby Championship, and the domestic and European club season played between December and April. How workable that is remains a massive issue. The Top 14 would need 30 weeks alone, and that’s before one even considers European competition.

I am a traditionalist but not a fool. These proposals will go hand-in-glove with financial incentives that would make your knees knock and your eyes water and will grease the logistic wheels, no matter how complicated they appear.

One obvious tweak is switching the hemisphere test windows. I’ve never understood why it hasn’t already been teased out. So instead of northern hemisphere countries freezing their nuts off in New Zealand’s winter in June, or the Wallabies playing in the driving rain up here in November, do it the other way around and ensure good surfaces and a dry ball for both blocks.

Does a successful Heineken Champions Cup negate the need for a World Club competition? That surely depends on where you watch your rugby. In Ireland, the European Cup is very special and our biggest priority outside the test arena. However Europe is a distant third in France after the international team and the Top 14. The Bouclier is hugely prestigious in France and not something the clubs would every consider relinquishing or even diluting. Nor, by the way, would the rugby-supporting public in France. Take away 12 weeks of mandatory rest every year for players, and the proposals is looking to work a new global package into 40 weeks. It seems an ask.

The wiggle room, the chink of light for its proponents comes in the fact that southern hemisphere rugby is not as well packaged as in Europe. The fans are thirsting for something fresh and new. The Rugby Championship and Super Rugby are somewhat stale and in need of rejuvenation.

So let’s play magic for a minute and tease out the appeal of a 12-team global club league, with two groups of six. The top two in each section qualify for the semi-finals. There’s six teams from the southern hemisphere – two from New Zealand, one each from South African, Argentina and Australia franchise - squaring up against six of Europe’s finest (two English teams, two Irish and two French).

Travelling across time zones is something southern hemisphere countries are well used to. Their teams would travel up and base themselves in London for a month, playing their three away games (next season, they’d have three home games). In Year 2, the northern hemisphere sextet travel south.

The Luxembourg-based investment vehicle CVC has already shown its hand and its muscle with a €350m investment in the Six Nations, and with that sort of incentive on the table, the strategists at World Rugby will be keen to use all this down time as creatively as they can.

However, they will mess with tradition at their peril. The European Cup might be ‘only’ 25 years old but it has carved a niche for itself in the minds of northern hemisphere rugby supporters. Tinkering with that is a dangerous game, irrespective of the potential rewards. A mix of cultures is important in rugby’s new world; establish new frontiers for sure, but not at the expense of what us traditionalists hold dear. The Bouclier, the Premiership, the Heineken Cup are all jewels in their own right that one should be very cautious about messing with.

With a shutdown of sport, there is a clear window to design an ambitious calendar but the structures and principles cannot be guided by money alone.

Which gets squeezed - the international or the club game? Nearly every union will point to the international team as its cash cow but are we then looking at a situation where players will be up to 20 tests a year on top of their club responsibilities? The World Cup remains every four years, but is there a place, or a need, for another global test event in between? Or will World Rugby use the autumn and summer windows to create a global competition in that space?

I’ve put more question marks in this column than any to date. It underlines the uncertainty of the present and the risks for the future.

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