Most of the money loaned to help with improvements to facilities seems to be spent improving anything but the game of rugby: a 3G pitch that can be played on and rented by other sports or an improved clubhouse that can double as a venue for parties or functions, all designed to make the clubs financially self-sufficient with no need to rely on the Union for anything – and that worries me
Jeff Probyn’s words form part of an article in this week’s The Rugby Paper looking at the what he sees as the positive appointment of the new RFU CEO, Steve Brown, under the somewhat sensationalised headline, ‘New RFU boss Brown has a big job – save our game!’
They are, however, unlikely to endear him to the hundreds of Coventry supporters who have been hoping for just such a scenario…the procurement of monies to help finance the laying down of a synthetic surface at the BPA.
Whilst the same might not be true of other clubs, Chairman Jon Sharp has made it clear that should we ever install such a pitch, any profits accruing from renting out the surface to other clubs, rugby or otherwise, would be ploughed straight back into the rugby playing side of club.
In so doing, the club would be able to run more teams and help engage more youngsters at an earlier age in playing rugby which is, after all, one of the key targets of the RFU.
Probyn’s argument, one that appears somewhat blinkered, is that professional rugby has lost sight of the game’s core values and clubs, and indeed professional rugby players too, are driven now purely by money and financial reward.
Probyn steers clear of using the word ‘greed’, but certainly that seems to be an undercurrent in some of what he suggests:
…professional sport is damaging the fabric of the game as each player and club compete for more money, whatever the cost to the game as a whole
Maybe I’m misunderstanding what exactly it is that Probyn is trying to get across, but he does seem to have missed the point somewhat, especially for those clubs that are experiencing serious financial difficulties…(and I don’t include Cov in that group any longer).
If the RFU is loaning out monies for clubs to finance, say, the purchase of a 3G pitch, then surely if that enables a club to ultimately become self-sufficient, then that’s a good thing? The reliance on the RFU to continue funding a club in debt would be a far bigger worry and the last thing the game needs is another London Welsh scenario.
If a club has a business plan that is financially sound, one that in the long term will provide financial stability and eventually independence, I’m not altogether sure why supporting the funding of a 3G pitch, or even the improving of the club’s facilities, should be seen in such negative terms. Such improvements could result in local community sports benefiting as well, potentially providing youngsters with happier, healthier lifestyle choices into the bargain.
And if ‘most of the money loaned’ is just that, loaned, then doesn’t that suggest that it will be repaid at some point with no loss to the RFU in the longer term?
I would tentatively suggest that Jeff Probyn’s real concern isn’t that professionalism is fragmenting the game, nor is it that the core values are being eroded, it’s more a case that if, indeed, clubs do become self-sufficient they will have:
no need to rely on the Union for anything
And if that is indeed clubs don’t need the involvement of the RFU to quite the same extent, then the future for the RFU becomes very bleak indeed. If it is to maintain its grip on the game, then it can ill afford to let clubs become independent of it, financially or otherwise…
…if that’s not the case, then Probyn hasn’t helped the RFU cause by saying what he’s said in last weekend’s The Rugby Paper.
Probyn goes on to say that modern professional players are not like those of the past and have ‘few or no links to the rest of the game’ as ‘many have not played grassroots rugby’.
However, the introduction of national league rugby has meant that even in leagues as low as National Two and Three, clubs are becoming semi-professional and grassroots rugby is being pushed further and further down the pyramid.
So it’s hardly surprising that players in the top two leagues are a world apart from the kind of rugby that Jeff Probyn might have started out in when he was at Old Albanian and Streatham all those years ago, back in the late 70s and early 80s.
And in fairness to the RFU, it has come out against the PRL’s plans to extend its A League competition to 22 games next season, virtually ensuring that youngsters attached to Premiership clubs won’t benefit from the experience of playing alongside experienced pros in the Championship or National One – which would be the grassroots as far as Premiership clubs are concerned.
And many players in those two leagues appreciate exactly what the games’ core values are and are almost on a daily basis working with youngsters in the local community to ensure that these are passed on to the next generation.
Cov are extremely lucky to have someone as capable as Matt Price delivering its community programme, but there are other clubs in our league and in the leagues above and below us, delivering an equally valuable service.
Probyn makes the point that in the modern era, players are too focused on following the money, going on to say that there is:
nothing wrong with that, it’s a short playing career and so they must take what they can within a limited time, but it doesn’t engender loyalty and friendship…
I have some sympathy with him there and in recent times even at Cov we have seen the journeymen come and go under previous DoRs…but it doesn’t have to be like that as we have seen in the last couple of seasons or so. Look at the number of players who wanted to remain at Cov post-Morgan, many of them being prepared to stay on for contracts that weren’t anywhere near as generous as those they were already on.
Coventry RC is a professional club these days, yet the values that Probyn suggests no longer remain amongst the top tier clubs, sacrificed he believes in an effort to attain some sort of financial self-sufficiently, are there to be seen in everything it does. The only players we lost last season were those the club moved on, other than Darryl Dyer, the rest opted to remain. It’s not all about money. Further, the likes of Makaafi, Narraway and Tuitupou aren’t here on mega contracts, they are here because they have bought into the vision that Cov has of achieving Championship rugby over the next two or three seasons.
If we are to believe what we are told, and I have absolutely no reason to doubt it, the playing budget this year is very similar to that of last season…it’s the ethos and the vision that are the club’s USPs, not its wage structure.
Many of the players who have come to Cov this season, and indeed those already here, could have earned far more lucrative contracts elsewhere but opted to stay at Cov because of what they perceive to be the direction the club is taking over the next couple of years. They want to be a part of it, as we all do. It’s one of the reasons why we watch our rugby at the BPA on a Saturday and not The Ricoh.
The likes of Nilsen, Tuitupou and Setu are anything but removed from the core values that Cov promotes. You only have to see them with their children after games or to have witnessed them at the ‘Meet The Players’ day to understand that; they seem happy to let their families share in the wider experiences that make Cov the club it is, a family club.
Yet this is in complete contrast with Probyn’s view that:
In the professional game, players are detached even from their clubs and take a singular view of where they can get the most money
There is no ‘singular view’ at Cov that I’m aware of; players are anything but detached. The open door policy at training sessions on a Thursday evening is further evidence of a club that accords its supporters genuine respect and players are only too willing to chat to supporters after a game.
The picture Probyn paints of players in the professional era is certainly one I don’t recognise at Coventry at the moment. His comments seems more indicative of the distance between the RFU and teams at the mid to lower end of the national pyramid, rather than symptomatic of any malaise in the modern game.
Paradoxically, Probyn ties himself up in knots at the end of the section on the RFU by confusing the games governing body with the game itself. He says:
The CEO is the most powerful position in the RFU and can direct the sport in any direction. Richie made the RFU a great business, it will be interesting if Brown can make it a great sport
The RFU is the RFU, it is not a sport. Rugby is the sport and it is already a great one. What will be interesting is whether the RFU can adapt to the modern era and encourage clubs to become more self-sufficient without being paranoid that it will lose control, having already seen the Premiership clubs become autonomous.
If, under the new CEO, the RFU begins to pull away from supporting clubs in their bids for 3G pitches and development of facilities within their grounds, it risks a number of its higher profile clubs facing far greater financial uncertainty than at present.
If one of the complaints about 3G pitches is that they are being used by other sports outside of the times rugby clubs need use of them, then that suggests that it is not the clubs that are losing sight of the core values, it is the RFU itself.
It took me less than 60 seconds to find the following statement on the RFU website:
During these economic times rugby clubs are facing challenges generating sufficient income to meet the rising costs associated with running a club, meaning it is more important than ever to develop and diversify revenue streams
If diversifying revenue streams in order to ensure a club’s survival means enabling your local community to take part in active physical exercise and share in the enjoyment of sport, then why on earth would Jeff Probyn, or the RFU, object to helping finance the installation of a 3G pitch?
Especially as it’s bringing youngsters into a rugby club who might never otherwise have gone there, thus becoming potential players and supporters of the future? Probyn feels that:
…the grassroots have been let down as all efforts seem to be directed at making them small businesses that happen to run a rugby team
But in all seriousness, can a club in the lower tiers of national rugby be anything other than a small business and survive in the current financial climate?
Unlikely, at best.
Coventry’s own recent history is a case in point. The club tried to be just a rugby club for too long and in doing so on two occasions in the last 20 years it almost folded. Now that it is run very much as a not-so-small business, it is beginning to thrive and, as a result, the quality of the rugby has improved, too.
Maybe Jeff Probyn is right if his comments are applied to clubs out side of National One, but we have seen a number of clubs in Tier Three, move towards 3G pitches as a way of bringing in much needed revenue.
And now Cov is looking to do the same.
I trust that the RFU will be more accommodating than Jeff Probyn appears to be.
Grass roots rugby?
Synthetic roots, more like…