The chief executives of the Six Nations renewed talks in London yesterday aimed at finalising an offer designed to change the face of the game. Having already forked out some €400m to buy stakes in the English Premiership and PRO14, the private equity firm CVC Partners are willing to pay the Six Nations almost as much again for a share of the tournament’s commercial rights.
As everyone knows by now, money has not so much talked in what used to be the amateur code as shrieked. The new backers see the game as providing the potential to generate the same kind of rich pickings they found in revitalising Formula One.
Only they know exactly how that can be achieved but a two-division, 24-team British & Irish League makes commercial sense. The PRO14 staggers on despite repeated blows to its credibility, most recently by Munster picking a second-string against Edinburgh in Cork in order to rest their first XV for the Champions Cup.
The PRO14 is not alone. Both European competitions have laboured under the same handicap, the premier event weakened by the absence of so many headline acts recovering from the World Cup, the secondary competition by a sense from the French clubs that they consider it a waste of time.
Agen made 13 changes and conceded 73 points at home to Bordeaux. Bayonne made the same number in losing at home to Scarlets, Pau almost as many in shipping more than 50 points to Cardiff Blues. Toulouse are a shining exception but for almost all French clubs, winning the Top14 is all that matters, their raison d’etre.
The fans are beginning to vote with their feet.
Bath’s attendance against Clermont at The Rec last Friday night was almost 3,000 down on the previous week against Saracens in the Premiership.
Gloucester’s gate at Kingsholm yesterday suffered a similar hit but at least they could blame it on a Sunday lunchtime start.
A British & Irish League being like the Champions Cup without the French, CVC will probably see a more rewarding future in an end-of-season play-off.
If the money is right, it will happen and Europe, as we know it, shall be no more.
Provinces extend gap in one-sided Anglo-Irish battle
The latest batch of Anglo-Irish results from Europe ought to be flashing out in neon lights from every scoreboard across the country.
An exercise in crunching numbers based on three-and-a-bit seasons of the Champions Cup produces a set of figures one-sided enough to offer some relief to those still wincing at the painful memory of what England did in Dublin at the start of the year.
No amount of compensation, however great, could ever be enough to repair the psychological fall-out from the pulverising nature of that defeat and the recurring collateral damage wrought at Cardiff, Twickenham and Shizuoka. The after-tremors of those beatings are still keeping the seismologists busy which makes the current score in its condensed form all the more welcome:
Ireland 25, England 7.
The figures reveal a striking level of consistency from a provincial quartet averaging at least three wins out of every four against English Premiership clubs.
In doing their collective bit to redress the balance, Leinster continue to lead from the front.
Their customary dismissal of Northampton means that over the last three years they have faced English opposition 11 times and swept all before them, save for Saracens in the final on Tyneside last season. Had Saturday’s tie been at Madison Square Garden instead of the one named after Mr Franklin, the referee would have stopped it.
Rejuvenated and reinvented under Chris Boyd, a visionary coach from New Zealand, the Saints had been talked up pre-match from their vantage point astride the Premiership. Beating the best in England is one thing, doing the same to the best in Europe a very different matter.
Boyd knew that. “We’re a nearly club because in 20 years we’ve won one Heineken Cup (against Munster in 2000) and one Premiership. The question is whether we can get enough scraps to turn them into gold.” As it turned out, they nearly gave Leinster a game, only for half an hour or so before shipping three tries in nine minutes to both props and a substitute out-half. In two visits to the English shoe town on European business, Leinster have given them a serious leathering.
In between amassing 80 points at the Gardens, they ran up three-quarters as many when Northampton were last in Dublin three seasons ago at the Aviva Stadium, no place for the down-at-heel. They are back there on Saturday when to concede fewer than 60 will be an improvement of sorts.
Ulster have now won seven of the last nine against English clubs, a second single-point win of the campaign confirming their speciality in the nail-biting art of cutting it mighty fine.
With Clermont looming large in the Massif Central next month, a double over Harlequins at Twickenham on Friday will hoist the northerners into a delirious state of lunar suspension over Christmas.
Munster will be up there in outer space less than 24 hours later if they find it in them to knock a reinforced Saracens out of Europe and leave the holders to concentrate on surviving their domestic handicap. Whatever happens, Leinster will take some beating.
Evans wins race to bath
After 13 seasons earning a living in the rugby jungles of South Wales, Dan Evans never even went close to being sent off. Now, all of a sudden, he has overtaken all-comers to the fastest red card of all time.
It took the Ospreys full-back all of 37 seconds to get his marching orders, sprinting to the earliest of baths against Racing in Swansea. Catching the first high ball of the evening, as Evans did, is not much good if it is accompanied by a foot into the face of the nearest opponent, in this case France wing Teddy Thomas.
It will be absolutely no consolation whatsoever for Evans to learn that he shaved a full second off the Premiership soccer record, set at 38 seconds by Steven Gerrard for Liverpool against Manchester United four years ago.
Challenging times in Russia
It would be safe to say that rugby is less than all the rage in Krasnodar, a Russian city whose population reached seven figures last year. Castres’ match there against Enisei-STM at the weekend for a Challenge Cup tie caused about as much interest as a chat show at a Trappist convention. Officially, the ‘crowd’ was estimated at 100 which suggested it may or may not have reached three figures. They missed a treat of sorts, a sin-bin packed to the rafters with French players.
Georgian referee Nika Amashukeli dealt four yellows to Castres between the 50th and 58th minutes, thereby reducing a French rugby team to 11 players, not that it put them in any danger of losing. Two Russians also went, leaving Krasnodar to consider building a two-tier naughty step.
Best referee-player conversation:
Alexandre Ruiz of France responding to an altercation with Northampton’s Wales stand-off Dan Biggar, not one to be a shrinking violet:
“Dan. Dan. Mr Biggar. Mr Biggar. Number ten. Listen to me, please. You need to control.’’ Biggar: “No problem.”