Craig leaves lasting European legacy

Billionaire Bruce Craig was one of the key drivers behind the changes in European rugby that he believes gives his Bath project the stimulus to succeed.

Bruce Craig loves seeing a plan come together.

“What we have put in place,” smiles the Bath owner, “is an evolution of club rugby.”

Others would say revolution, but few have won any arguments against Craig since he became the driving force altering the landscape of European rugby.

A man with enough foresight to register ‘Champions Cup’ three years ago ahead of the drawn-out political in-fighting that dominated last season, it is not hard to see why Craig has shaken up the sport so profoundly since he bought Bath in 2010.

His background is in pharmaceuticals, with the company he founded, Marken, sold for €1.194bn in 2009.

The lifelong Bath fan used a portion of that windfall to buy the club and immediately set about transforming Farleigh House, a Gothic castle, into what is perhaps the finest training ground in world sport.

He has accepted losses of around €3m a season but is still keen to spend, as evidenced by this week’s failed bid to bring Steffon Armitage back from Toulon in France.

Mike Ford, the Director of Rugby, is under intense pressure to bring success to the Rec this season and their form in the Premiership — particularly in beating Leicester 45-0 — has been superb.

Yet it is in European rugby that Craig may leave his most lasting legacy. He is one of three executive directors of the new competition and was one of the strongest advocates for change.

He believes those changes are already bearing fruit, with television deals for the new competitions yielding €57m annually for the next four years. The entire revenue of ERC was €47m.

That Irish provinces no longer enjoy some of the perceived advantages of the Heineken Cup is a fringe benefit, with Craig hardly unhappy that the English and French sides are now on what he views as a level playing field.

And as he turns his thoughts to co-ordinating a global calendar and perhaps a world championship play-off between the Super15 champions and the European Rugby Cup winners, it is clear there is no end to his ambition.

“What we went through last season was definitely worth it,” he told the Irish Examiner.

“We felt the competition needed to be changed because there were inequalities. The way it was structured was unfair for the English and French clubs. The way it is done now shows we were right to change certain things.

“Normally you have one Pool of Death. Well what we have now are four Pools of Death and one that is slightly easier. Sportingly it is a much stronger competition.

“In April the agreement was struck between all the stakeholders (for the new competition) and we have put the TV rights in place, which is 75% of revenues.

“That amount is a 60% uplift on last year’s rights and that is a very good base for the competitions. We have €220m of TV revenues over the next four years and that underpins the competition going forward.”

You have to strain to hear Craig, so softly does he speak. The impression given is of a man in total control and in charge of every situation.

Certainly, his satisfaction with Bath — who face Glasgow, Montepellier and Toulouse in Pool 4 — is clear.

“I’m very pleased,” he smiles. “What has been worked at over the last two or three years is coming to fruition. In the 1980s, Bath was the team. There have been a few years where the amount of success they had in the past was not as good as it should be. Hopefully the good times are to come.”

The man tasked with putting that plan into practice is Ford. The pair go out for dinner every week and the Director of Rugby is well aware what is expected of him. That said, he appears to relish it. Even a glance at Bath demonstrates what a profound impact Craig has had.

“Bruce’s ambition and drive filters all the way down from me to the management, the coaches, the players and even the office staff. His ambition and determination to do well is second to none. He has given us a platform to produce, and he is very supportive of me. It is pretty exciting working with him.

“He is an entrepreneur, he was behind this new European rugby format and he was dead right to do what he did. There are other things he’s working on behind the scenes too and it’s just fantastic to work with someone who wants to win just as much as you do.”

And while Craig is a master of politics, he is well aware now is the time for the rugby to do the talking.

He expects even more success next year — and the recent salary cap adjustment in the Aviva Premiership is thought to have been pushed for by Craig to ensure Bath can snare Australia’s Will Genia after the World Cup — but now his tournament needs to show what it’s made of.

“I think the most important thing is the sporting side of all this,” he says. “When we see the quality of the players and the teams when the rugby starts then all the turmoil and everything that happened will be forgotten.”

Yet, as ever, Craig will have triumphed.


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