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A Brave New Year? Or just more of the same?

As I drove through the early hours of a New Year on Sunday en route to Goldington Road, Bedford I couldn`t help but wonder where 2012 will take the sport of rugby union.

Rugby pages in various newspapers over the holiday period were keen to report the notion that rugby union should become a summer sport along with mass praise for the 82,000 crowd at Twickenham for the Sarries v Quins game.

Northampton`s Chris Ashton having smugly written (sic) a whole book about his rugby year looks set to quit the club at the end of the season, Welsh referee Nigel Owens upset outgoing Ospreys director of rugby Scott Johnson over his usage of Twitter, England`s problems on the international stage were attributed to a lack of quality flankers, and then were were hit with further calls for regional rugby or outright franchising of the top flight clubs.

No wonder Christmas is the silly season for news stories.

The Twickenham experience for a Premiership game appears in this instance to have been a triumph for the marketing people and I don`t have a problem with these one-off games at big venues. We live in tough economic times and the sport has to remain competitive off the field in the battle for the supporters`s pounds and pence. Give them a good product at the right price and they will come. If they don`t then clubs, as businesses, need to look at themselves again.

Chris Ashton is a good player but if you have ever read Gavin Henson`s so-called autobiography and managed to get to the end of it, then you will probably agree that players are best disposed to matters literary when their careers are nearing the end or they have really acheived something.

As for where Ashton plays next season I don`t particularly care but I did feel some sympathy for Nigel Owens who has tried to move with the times in his usage of social media and as a result dispel some of the myth about match officials being uncommunicative automatons.

As a journalist I have tried on several occassions to get Referees, including Wayne Barnes, to come in front of a microphone and just explain a decision or course of action they have taken in a game. I know they will always say “no” but it doesn`t stop me trying because I believe that the game will improve, as will respect for the officials, if they are allowed to do post-match interviews.

Many soccer pundits have been calling for this for several seasons now and I can see it happening there in time but could rugby not steal a march on that sport for once? We live in a world where everybody is now accountable for their actions and whilst Scott Johnson was well within his rights to criticise Owens for tweeting, I think the Welshman deserves credit for daring to be a little bit different.

Regional rugby on the other hand is definitely coming to English rugby because the top-tier clubs cannot afford to compete en masse at their current levels for ever.

There is too much money available to too small a percentage of players at the top level of the game and this is unsustainable. We saw what professionalism did to the bank balances of many junior clubs in this country and the headlong rush to pay the most amongst the elite is crazy. I wish those rushing off to France to line their pockets well, but it won`t last.

Regional rugby will take time to implement, be incredibly painful to administer, and no doubt be slated for being unjust from many sides. Most of us probably remember the bloody mess and huge fallout, created by the regionalisation of Welsh rugby but quite frankly there is only a finite amount of cash which investors will put into English rugby.

Regional identities and parochialism were probably grossly underestimated in the Welsh model but outside of the south-west of England and places such as Leicester and Northampton I can see it being less of an issue and therefore more of a workable model here.

I would counter that though with the argument that regionalisation would only work with an enhanced Premiership comprising of perhaps 15 clubs and a scrapping of the ridiculous Premiership entry criteria which not all Premiership clubs currently satisfy themselves.

The fact that aspirational clubs should sell the family silver just to pay for basic entry-level off-field facilities is ludicrous. Fans pay to watch a good product on the field, not worry about the number of burger vans, width of doorways, or wattage of the floodlights. Yes, its a simplistic viewpoint but it is also right.

I can`t see franchising working yet in a country as relatively small, in global terms, as England and in a league system such as the one we currently have. You would need to create a whole new hybrid such as the NFL and the RFU would need several millenia to ever sanction that.

And as for summer rugby, well if you want to watch it then you can. It is called rugby league. I rest my case.

Happy New Year!

 

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