รักบี้อังกฤษ 'ร้องหาแนวร่วม' เพื่อช่วยให้ออกมาจาก 'โหมดการอยู่รอด'
English rugby is “crying out for alignment” to help it come out of “survival mode”.
That’s the verdict of the Premiership’s leading coaches, as they prepare for this weekend’s semi-finals.
In a special episode of the BBC Rugby Union weekly podcast, Mark McCall, Alex Sanderson, Richard Wigglesworth and Phil Dowson sat down to discuss the state of the game, life in charge of an elite club, and how to navigate the league out of a turbulent period.
While saying there is “so much to celebrate” about the Premiership, there are warnings about the “incoherent” development pathway which is stunting young players.
Meanwhile, “growth and ambition” is required to prevent club rugby going the same way as county cricket, according to Saracens boss McCall.
‘Players want to know where the game is headed’
This season has been overshadowed by off-the-field issues, with Wasps and Worcester going out of business and London Irish also in financial difficulty.
“Players I have spoken to at our club just want to know where the game is headed,” said McCall, whose side host Northampton on Saturday.
“They want to know where the growth and ambition is. There is so much to celebrate about the Premiership, but we seem to be in survival mode a little bit.
“Things happen in sport. County cricket, for example – it was big, and it’s not big now and other things are more important.
“We have to make sure the Premiership stays a really relevant, important, elite competition. There is a bit of work to be done, I think.
“The on-field product is really good and hopefully we can make everything else as good as that.”
‘We want to paint the game in a better light’
Sale’s Sanderson, whose side have a home semi-final against champions Leicester on Sunday, spoke about a “productive” meeting between directors of rugby and Premiership title sponsor Gallagher about “how we can increase crowd numbers and get people coming back”.
“It was wholly agreed that it was alignment with the broadcasters, with the product that is being put out there, in positive tones for a new market audience,” he said.
“Promoting healthy discussions to promote the game through the right reasons, not through some of the negatives ones. I think we are all aligned there. We want to paint the game in a better light.”
Rugby Football Union (RFU) and Premiership Rugby (PRL) bosses are in talks over a new long-form agreement to run from next year onwards, with both parties stressing a collaborative approach. PRL has promised a “re-birth” of the league in 2024-2025.
“You can still improve the product and you can improve the way the product is delivered,” said Northampton’s Dowson.
“What has happened at Wasps and Worcester is shocking and very sad. It is a stark warning. The game has to be managed better and grown, and get more people excited and involved.
“More often than not it’s a cracking watch and there is a lot going on. There is a great group of lads playing in it who all have good stories.”
Leicester’s interim head coach Wigglesworth agreed, adding: “What I do know is we have a great game and we continue to bash it and go after it instead of celebrating it.
“It’s a brilliant game played by brilliant people with loads of good about it. We don’t focus on that enough.”
‘Young players don’t play enough’
While limiting game time for senior England internationals has long been a thorny issue for the sport’s administrators, at the other end of the spectrum are the young players who are not playing enough.
“One of the biggest problems is game time for these players,” said McCall. “I don’t think someone has a masterplan as to how these young players play an appropriate level of rugby.
“I think there are too many of them not playing. We need to find a way to give them more rugby.”
Dowson said: “There is no coherent structure within the game for development guys coming out of school and coming into professional rugby.
“Some sides do it through A leagues, some sides through a loan club – we have a great relationship with Bedford in the Championship.
“There are loads of different ways of doing it but there is not one pathway which works and develops guys to play for the club and then to go on and play for England.”
“As Phil said, it’s every man for himself at the moment,” he added.
“Every club unilaterally decides what they think is the best for them and then it is probably a diluted version of what you want anyway. But there has to be a coherent plan across the clubs, the same plan.
“I think the RFU need to get on top of that. The current system is far from perfect. [We need] someone with a masterplan. The [French] Top 14 seems to be absolutely booming but underneath that there is a pathway for their younger players.
“But it wasn’t like that five or six years ago. Someone, or some people, got it together and aligned everything and I think we are crying out for that to happen.”
Wigglesworth, who is joining Steve Borthwick’s England set-up next month, said: “You need to ask Alex Sanderson what he is doing at Sale; you need to ask Mark McCall, who has developed however many England internationals, what is the best way of doing it.
“If Mark is saying they are not getting enough rugby, then they are definitely not getting enough rugby.
“He has seen it for so many years and what works and what the challenges are that we need to tap into that knowledge and get a proper system for these youngsters coming through.”
‘You are going to wreck some dreams’
As the four men plot a route to the Twickenham final at the end of the month, all agree picking a team at this stage of the season, and delivering bad news to those who miss out, is one of the hardest parts of the job.
“If you care for the players, then you are going to have four or five tough conversations a week,” said Sanderson.
“You are going to wreck some dreams come the end of the season. Everyone wants to be on the field and you have to do what is right for the team.”
Sanderson also reflected on conversations with players about them moving on at the end of the season.
“I didn’t realise until I actually got there that it hurts,” he said. “And I’m glad it hurts, because it shows I’m still human. The day that is stops hurting is the day to do something different.”
McCall said: “I would have said that is the hardest part of the job, for sure.
“Especially this time of year when there are a lot of people who could be in your 23, and you can only pick 23. You are breaking some hearts. Equally, stopping someone’s career as well, which in this day and age we are having to do more and more.”
Wigglesworth, who was given the Leicester job in December after Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield left to join England, has had to switch mid-season from being a player to being the main man.
“I’m new to it, and I think the group I’ve got have been incredibly mindful of my inexperience in that,” he said.
“I’ve tried to be honest because that’s the best way I know how. I’ve tried to do it with some skill, achieved it some times and not in others, but I’ve been really lucky with the group I’ve got, because they’ve had a lot of empathy for me and the role I’ve taken on.”
Dowson added: “I’m also having those horrible conversations with people I’ve played alongside. I would like to think I have a strong enough relationship with the guys in that situation to be really honest. It is just an unfortunate and occasionally uncomfortable part of the job.”
“I was chucked out of the players’ WhatsApp group pretty sharpish,” laughed Wigglesworth.
“It was just after the first game as head coach. We beat Gloucester and then I was kicked out!”