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Hewett column: Now, more than ever, the game needs strong leadership

Bill Beaumont

Never let a good crisis go to waste. Winston Churchill, no less, was busily preparing the ground for the formation of the United Nations in the immediate aftermath of World War II when he expressed this opinion and, as is usual with Churchillisms, everyone else has been saying the same thing ever since, if only to themselves.

The latest example? Step forward the fragrant Karren Brady, high priestess of the business boardroom, prime-time reality television and, marginally less successfully, West Ham United. Approximately 20 seconds after the coronavirus outbreak started laying waste to professional football, the Conservative life peer used her newspaper column to argue for the scrapping of the current Premier League season.

It should be declared “null and void”, she insisted. Over and done with. Finished. Los Endos. Never happened in the first place. The fact that West Ham are currently above the relegation zone only by dint of goal difference was entirely coincidental. That went without saying.

If we turn our gaze northwards towards the fair city of Glasgow, where the sporting scene has always been distinguished by stratospheric levels of mutual goodwill and understanding, we have a bristling argument on the same subject. Celtic, cruising towards a ninth straight championship and hot favourites to add an unprecedented 10th next time out, would very much like to be awarded the title now, if not sooner – or, failing that, to have the campaign played to its pre-ordained conclusion at some point later this year. Rangers? Surprise surprise, they saying: “Let’s call the whole thing off.”

Most Rugby Union folk still pride themselves on the fact that their sport is not football, the sub-text being that in terms of its culture, their sport is vastly superior. Respect for the referee, no fighting on the terraces…we drank in those values with our mother’s milk. But things ain’t what they used to be. If they were, the first few weeks of 2020 would not have been nearly so depressing.

Exeter Chiefs, virtually a no-go area for bad publicity and criticism since their arrival in the top flight of the English game, shot themselves in both feet when Tony Rowe, their chairman and principal investor, addressed the nation on the subject of jobless Flybe staff and the free match tickets to which they believed, in all innocence, they were entitled. In achieving the unimaginable by making Scrooge sound like the Dalai Lama, he undermined years of brilliant work by the communications team at Sandy Park. There were a hundred ways Rowe could have dealt with the issue sympathetically. Exasperatingly, he chose Option 101.

Exhibit B is Bill Sweeney, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, whose car-crash BBC radio interview about funding (or the lack of it) for Championship clubs sounded supercilious at best and downright arrogant at worst. Exhibit C? That would be Eddie Jones, the head coach of the national team, who not only criticised the New Zealand referee Ben O’Keeffe for his sending off of Manu Tuilagi at Twickenham but effectively accused him of being a 16th man for Wales.

Jones was “reprimanded” by the good Mr Sweeney, who, in the same breath, called for a “high level discussion forum with World Rugby to help achieve greater general alignment between coaches and match officials.” It was a classic piece of Twickenham triangulation in a tight corner. Coaches cannot throw verbal hand grenades at referees without having the book thrown at them. Unless they can. Good. That’s clear.

It would be reassuring to believe that rugby’s leaders will emerge from this enforced hiatus – correction: this crisis – with a new sense of direction and a fresh spirit of community. Heaven knows, the game needs both of these things. If you want proof, just look at the current charge sheet.

The union code continues to spend more than it earns, with many professional players on salaries completely at odds with the business model, yet the prevailing mood amongst the decision-makers has been one of beggar-thy-neighbour self-centredness.

Championship clubs of genuine ambition are being thrown to the wolves; the Welsh regions are flirting ever more dangerously with terminal irrelevance; the rugby nations of Eastern Europe are having the vibrancy drained from them; the Japanese are bowing out of Super Rugby, mere months after playing the house down at their own World Cup; the Australian game is in a sea of pain. As for the Pacific Islands…well, we all know where they’re heading.

Rugby is international and interconnected whether the executive class likes it or not and is therefore as strong, and no stronger, than its weakest link. In this unprecedented moment for sport across the world, it needs people of vision not simply to play a blinder, but to talk one. Language will matter like never before. On current evidence, sadly, it does not matter nearly enough to those with the loudest voices.

CHRIS HEWETT

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