As much as it doesn’t like/want to be compared to soccer/football it’s inescapable. They are two of the most popular team sports in the world, their respective World Cups are two or the three most watched events every four years (the Olympics being the other), and more and more money is taking over the game. As we’ve seen over the last few years big money from France is not only drawing in players from Wales, but from England, and the Southern Hemisphere as well. Rather than embracing this new reality unions have instead dug in, something that is keeping the game from progressing.
The latest player to France rumor involves Toby Flood. The England and Leicester fly-half will be leaving for France at the end of the season with Toulouse the likely destination. At only 28 Flood is easily the most experienced fly-half available for England with 60 caps. But by moving to France Flood will essentially remove himself from England contention. That means it will be up to Owen Farrell, and presumably young George Ford to take over the reigns.
It would be alright if Flood was in his 30’s and on the downside of his career but at 28 he still has a lot of productive years left. Leaving him out of consideration only because he plays in a different country is ridiculous. If he is good enough, he should be picked. It’s understandable that England, or Wales or Scotland or whoever has players in a different country, would want to keep their best players at home, but in this day and age it doesn’t make as much sense as it used to.
Players are going to go where the money is and right now that is in France. You can easily make the claim that the money has also made the Top 14 into the best league in Europe. Sure, Irish and English teams have made waves in Europe but top to bottom the Top 14 has the best concentration of players in the Northern Hemisphere. If Toby Flood can play and thrive in the best league in the region why shouldn’t he be able to play for England?
It comes down to old attitudes still prevailing in governing bodies like the RFU. Instead of trying to find ways to work with players they instead give them ultimatums. Given the kind of money that is available it’s simply not going to work. If England worked with Flood to put a release clause in his contract then questions surrounding availability would be answered. Instead, they take a position that drives him away from the team permanently.
It’s not just England that have done this. Wales are the prime example of a team that issues ultimatums to players on to see players defy the WRU causing the WRU to sheepishly call the exile players into the Welsh squad anyways. Australia have done this as well with the likes of James O’Connor, although wanting players to play in Super Rugby is far more understandable.
As we noted in the beginning, rugby is becoming more like soccer/football, especially at the club level. Money is allowing teams to bring in the best players possible, not just the best domestic players. The difference between the two sports is that rather than embracing the change and working to become the best like what soccer/football has done, rugby refuses to accept change. As a result, soccer/football continues to grow enormously year after year while rugby is often stuck in their fiefdoms.
The biggest losers in this whole scenario are the fans. Because unions are ruled by short-sighted administrators they are costing fans the opportunity to see the best rugby possible. That’s a shame. Hopefully a solution can be worked out soon so that fans will not be robbed of terrific rugby.