When rugby went professional — officially, at least — in 1995, Shannon won the first of their four-in-a-row AIL titles. That great club went on to win five more, but now plays in Division 1B. The lure of professionalism has made life very difficult for bedrock, legacy clubs, whose amateur culture is an echo from another time. In contrast, the game’s commercialism screamed yesterday, when a TV audience in the hundreds of millions watched former All Black Richie McCaw return the Webb Ellis Cup, won by New Zealand in 2011 and 2015, at the Rugby World Cup’s Tokyo opening ceremony. As he walked away from the trophy, McCaw cast a wistful glance over his shoulder, as if saying goodbye to a part of his life, gone forever. He need not have fretted: The All Blacks’ achievements — those of others, too — have helped build a commercial rollercoaster that shows no sign of slowing down.
That the Rugby World Cup megastore in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district had sold out of Wallaby and All Black T-shirts long before McCaw returned the trophy confirms that. That an equity firm has just secured unprecedented influence in European rugby, through a €350m deal, confirms it even more loudly. CVC Capital Partners, who have a stake in England’s Gallagher Premiership and who are finalising a similar deal with the Pro14, have agreed to buy a 15% share in six unions’ commercial arm. CVC will own a share not only of the Six Nations’ Championship, but also the autumn internationals and summer tours. If that momentum seems
unstoppable, it also raises the oldest of questions — how can resources be shared in a way that also shares opportunity?
Despite sharpening commercialism, it may be premature to imagine that the world’s best rugby players, or even their grandchildren, might enjoy soccer-grade munificence. Not even McCaw, in his pomp, could have fantasised about a deal like Neymar’s record €222m transfer in 2017.
Securing commercial success is just one of the challenges facing rugby, but it may not be the greatest. The game’s physicality is a huge — literally — issue. It can seem so violent, so power-based, that many parents steer children to lower-impact sports. Rules have been tweaked, referees empowered to put player safety first, yet that organised violence is the trait TV exploits. Premature retirements, because of repeated concussion, are just one consequence. This physicality, in turn, points a finger at the elephant in the room. Pictures of players in Japan show athletes with physiques far closer to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s than to Martin Johnson’s or Paul O’Connell’s — and neither of them was a will-o’-the-wisp. This is an issue at the highest level, as South Africa star Aphiwe Dyantyi failed a drugs test weeks ago. There remains an uneasy feeling that this curse is not being sufficiently challenged, not even, shockingly, at schoolboy level. Despite that, one of the world’s great festivals has begun. Euphoria and despair will meet, new friends will be made, and the woes of the world set aside for a few weeks. And, whisper it, if the rugby gods are kind and Ireland gets a rub o’ the green, then it is possible to dream the impossible. Just as Shannon did, so wonderfully, all those years ago.