Will Australian rugby become a farm for the north?

There is nothing quite like walking down the empty corridor of a care home for the elderly. The echo of your own footsteps seems just a little louder, the silence surrounding it a little deeper.

The walk always takes a little longer than you would wish – it is a journey the world of old age and helplessness, the world nobody really wishes to enter.

My Mum spent the final two months of her life in one such institution, and I was glad her stay was not longer. When I pushed the door open to her room for my visit each morning, I was always greeted by the same acrid smell – her pawky breakfast of tinned tomatoes on white toast.

The food, cheap and lacking in the most basic nutrients, somehow epitomised the bareness of the whole place. When I delved a little deeper, I found out why.

The care home, which was one in a large chain of homes across the UK owned by the same provider, had been purchased a few years before by an American private equity firm.

They had sold the parcels of land on which the homes were built en masse, and forced the local managers to re-rent the same property from its new landlord. Having stripped the main assets of the company, they sold up and moved on, like a plague of locusts to a new country.

The new cost obligation effectively ate up all of the financial provision which should have been ear-marked for the care of the residents. That, in turn, meant very high fees for minimal care.

How does this little story relate to rugby? The biggest off-field development in the northern hemisphere in 2019 has been the acquisition of a financial stake in the two big club competitions in the UK and Ireland – the English Premiership and the Pro 14 – by a private equity company called CVC Capital Partners.

CVC bought a 27 per cent shareholding in Premiership Rugby for £230 million (roughly $AUD420 million), then secured a similar stake in Pro 14 for £120 million. In March, the company tabled an offer of £500m for a similar share in the Six Nations tournament, the jewel in the northern hemisphere crown.

Wales Six Nations

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Although the buy-in only affects the governance of the commercial arm of the game, alarm bells have been raised by CVC’s record in Formula One racing.

Bob Fernley, the (then) deputy team principal of Force India, described the activities of CVC thusly back in 2016:

“All their actions have been taken to extract as much money from the sport as possible and put as little in as possible.”

CVC owned a majority shareholding in F1 for ten years between 2006 and 2017, obtaining an estimated 350 per cent return on their initial £1.4 billion investment. During that time, the sport moved from free-to-air to pay TV, and the worldwide audience fell by 137 million as a result.

The financial spoils from TV broadcasting rights and the new annual auctions for the staging of Grands Prix were unequally divided between the teams on the grid, and a huge chasm appeared between the bigger and smaller outfits.

CVC’s £230m investment in the English Premiership will be divided among Premiership Rugby’s 13 constituent clubs, a windfall payment of approximately £18m per club. If the experience of F1 is any guide, short-term gain may mean considerable suffering in the long view. CVC will deduct 27 per cent from the income of every single club, for every year that the deal lasts. This is not good news for clubs which are all (except for the Exeter Chiefs) right now in various shades of the financial red.

It is likely that most of the windfall will be spent on overseas signings as the top Premiership sides fight tooth and nail to fall into the category of the ‘haves’ rather than the ‘have-nots’. It is this development which poses a bigger threat than ever before to professional rugby in Australia and New Zealand.

Already, a core of Wallabies has signed on for next season – Nick Phipps, Curtis Rona, Sekope Kepu and Adam Coleman will all depart to newly-promoted London Irish, while David Pocock, Rory Arnold, Sam Carter, Scott Higginbotham, Samu Kerevi, Duncan Paia’aua and Sefa Naivalu are all headed to either France, Ireland or Japan.

Nick Phipps, shown running to London Irish. Maybe. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

New Zealand will also lose 12 top players to Europe, and another seven to Japan. That is a substantial exodus of talent which further undermines the dwindling value of Super Rugby.

The quicker the south comes to some kind of arrangement where they can retain primacy of contract with their top players, the better – whether it is via paid sabbaticals or an exchange scheme between paired clubs in the two hemispheres. If they don’t, the game of rugby will surely die on its feet as a professional entity.

Australia badly needs more of its itinerant players to come back home – players like Will Skelton, Dave Dennis and Nic White, who all started in the weekend’s spectacular Premiership finale between the Exeter Chiefs and Saracens.

White was possible the most influential player on the field for the first 65 minutes. When he was substituted, Exeter were four points ahead. When the final whistle blew, they had lost by three.

The decision-making finesse around the tackle site that White has refined in the northern hemisphere was a constant thorn in Saracens’ side. Exeter scored five tries against one of the toughest line-speed defences in Europe, and much of that success was connected with White’s ability to outwit the first three defenders closest to the ruck.

White’s try-scoring snipe in the very first minute of the game set the tone:

A halfback’s ability to pose a threat to the forwards closest to the breakdown has an important role in dislocating a defence based on line-speed. In the following example, the defenders on both sides of the ruck stop their upfield rush as soon as White sneaks around the corner, for the simple reason that you cannot rush and look in at the 9 at the same time!

The shortside defence becomes particularly vulnerable as defenders stop moving forward and start reacting to what the scrum half may or may not do:

White was able to manipulate the Saracens’ short-side defence expertly, giving off a variety of fake ‘cues’ to draw the response he wanted:

As he approaches the tackle, White momentarily hints towards the short-side before spinning the ball out in the opposite direction. That slight feint is enough to offset the openside defence and open a small seam for the Chiefs ball-carrier.

Once the feint was established, White could pick his moment to run off at the shortside defence in earnest:

Maro Itoje is momentarily caught with his back to the play, and that is White’s cue to run at him and develop play towards the left touchline:

nic white analysis

The build-up to Exeter’s third try of the game contained all of the nuanced highlights in White’s attacking play. First, the look to the shortside – not once, but twice – to delay the shoot off the line on the other side of the defence:

Second, the run off at a disorganised group of shortside defenders once the feint is established:

White had already recognised that Saracens number 14 Liam Williams was out of position and struggling to get back to his natural wing:

nic white analysis

Finally, the direct pass off his left hand, with minimal backlift and no extra steps taken out of the ball for the men outside him:

The Chiefs scored a couple of phases later.

Nic White’s awareness of the opportunities close to the breakdown was razor-sharp in all respects:

Firstly, he recognises the opportunity to throw the ball into a Saracens laggard retreating on the wrong side, then he sees the chance to take immediate advantage by putting Henry Slade through the hole as the defence relaxes.

White’s awareness in and around contact situations was a dominant factor in Exeter’s building of what could, and perhaps should have been a game-winning 11-point lead. He recovered two fumbles around the tackle:

The ball goes loose, and White beats Itoje to the recovery point.

He also adopted a running line in defence of Saracens’ box kicks more typical of an attacking halfback. Anticipating one of Saracens’ patented knock-backs off the high kick, he knifes in from the opposition side to reclaim the ball and trigger the counter immediately:

A good scrum half always predicts outcomes two steps before they actually occur!

nic white analysis

Summary
The appearance of a private equity firm in the northern hemisphere rugby firmament is a cause for serious concern. While they may make more money off broadcasting and sponsorship deals than their forebears, CVC are the only ones guaranteed to make a takeaway profit.

The future health of the game itself is far more uncertain. It may end up in a more unstable situation than before, if the experience of F1 is representative.

Clubs in the UK will be tempted to go for the quick fix and spend their CVC windfall on ever more top southern hemisphere signings – but in the long term, they will have to pay the piper with over one-quarter of their revenues, year in and year out.

That is an extra pound of flesh they can ill afford.

In the meantime, the professional tier of the game in the southern hemisphere will be further devalued by the increasing talent drain to England, France and Japan, funded by the financial speculators.

Australia will be losing not just veterans at the end of illustrious careers looking to bolster their pensions, but prime movers like Samu Kerevi and Adam Coleman, around whom the future of rugby in the country should be built.

They also badly need the likes of Will Skelton, Nic White and Dave Dennis to come back home in the improved versions of themselves. White, in particular, is playing well enough to challenge Will Genia for the halfback starting spot at the World Cup later this year.

Money talks, but it does not always make sense when it opens its mouth. Ask my Mum – she never warmed to the taste of tinned tomatoes on toast, even though she paid the earth for them.

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