Rob Andrew was once employed by the Rugby Football Union (RFU) to maintain peace with Premiership Rugby, but he has warned that the club-led model that operates in England and France is “distorting the world game.” And, he suggests, not even the All Blacks are safe from the fall out.
Andrew played a key role in brokering the original agreement between the two bodies a decade ago. It prevented civil war in English rugby and its latest iteration — an eight-year deal signed in 2016 — is worth more than £220 million to the clubs.
Effectively the RFU pays Premiership Rugby for the release of England players, but despite the apparent accord conflict remains as the club and international games jostle for space on a tight schedule. Most recently, plans to extend the Aviva Premiership season once the new global calendar takes effect in 2020 have led to calls for industrial action from some high profile figures.
“The conflict of interest between the union and the clubs hasn’t gone away and it never will go away,” Andrew, who is in the headlines following the release of his book “The Game of My Life” last month, told ESPN.
“That’s the reason I went to the RFU because it was at a really bad point in 2006-07. We tried to mend some fences and build some bridges since then but it will never go away because you have a system that builds conflict into it.
“When I was at the RFU I was managing that conflict on a daily basis. There will always be a power play between privately-owned clubs and the national governing body.”
Ultimately, Andrew believes, the RFU ceded any hope of winning that particular power struggle when it failed to implement central contracts at the dawn of professionalism in 1995.
In his opinion that decision has ensured that the England national team — and indeed its French counterpart — is no longer the pinnacle of the sport, as it is in New Zealand or to a lesser extent Ireland and Wales.
In turn, though, the riches on offer in the Premiership and Top 14 are threatening that structures in those countries as players look to maximise their earnings from what is a limited career.
“Cricket has a central contract system so effectively everything is geared towards the national team being successful. Which is effectively a bit like New Zealand Rugby,” Andrew, who now works in cricket as Sussex chief executive, said. “I’m not convinced everything is geared in English rugby to the national team being the No. 1 priority.”
He added: “The only thing that might hinder the All Blacks long term is that they lose more and more players from their system to play overseas, so their domestic system is weakened step by step and therefore that may ultimately weaken their national team.
“In the long-run who’s to say that the All Blacks will not be forced to pick players who are playing overseas like the Brazilian and Argentinean national football teams? That’s the drift that is happening now. The English and French models are distorting the whole of the world game from a financial perspective.”
The major difference to the conflict that engulfed English rugby when Andrew arrived at the RFU a decade ago, and the one threatening to explode now is that the players have a greater stake in its outcome. It is the men on the pitch who will bear the brunt of an extended season.
“The players and the players’ union are right in the middle of it because they’re the ones that are going to take the consequences,” Andrew said.
“[Player welfare] is potentially a massive issue that could cause the most significant rift that there has been for some time.
“Whether that leads to strike action I think they would have to be pushed pretty hard to get there but certainly the noises at the moment are that what is being proposed is definitely unsustainable and the players will have to decide how they want to deal with that.”