For those who might not have seen Neale Harvey’s excellent pieces in either the Sunday Independent or the Rugby Paper, Neale has very kindly allowed TASC to re-print his article on here.
By NEALE HARVEY
Assuming yesterday’s result went to plan, Cornwall supporters will flock to London in their droves next Sunday for the County Championship final.
They had better make the most of this latest trip to ‘the Smoke’ because if the information I’ve received is correct – and I’ve absolutely no reason to believe it isn’t accurate – the days of County Championship rugby may sadly be numbered.
As I first reported in February, senior figures at HQ have been questioning the continuing value of county rugby, which has been fighting against a tide of indifference for some time, and matters finally appear to be coming to a head.
The catalyst, as ever, is money with the RFU looking to make savings because of: a) a significant overspend on the East Stand development at Twickenham; and b) the mushrooming cost of sustaining elite rugby and its deal with Premiership Rugby.
Despite the RFU pretty much doubling its turnover to £407m in 2015-16, it does not take a rocket scientist to work out that shelling out £28m a season to the Premiership clubs, not to mention running all the England teams – with the ever-increasing match fees and bonuses to players – is going to substantially eat into any profits.
Throw in the £65m East Stand redevelopment – up from an initial estimate of £54m – and you can quickly see there might be problems.
One of the early victims will be the England Counties team, which currently costs £110,000 to run and usually plays two matches during the Six Nations followed by a two-match tour to a developing rugby nation during the month of June.
Twickenham beaks have decided the February/March matches will have to go and that rather than the touring side visiting far flung parts of Europe, Asia, Africa and North or South America, they will in future remain much closer to home.
A triangular tournament involving the likes of France, Ireland or Scotland has been mooted, but you could hardly describe that as attractive to semi-professional players from the National Leagues who have to use annual leave to compete.
And here’s the thing. At present, players who represent England Counties must make themselves available for the County Championship, but with the incentive of proper touring removed, in all honesty who is going to sign up for that?
With the England Counties set-up reduced to a state of near worthlessness, it therefore does not take a massive leap of the imagination to see that the County Championship will be devalued further and may quite quickly wither and die.
Clubs are already reluctant to release their best players so it would give those shadowy senior figures at Twickenham the perfect pretext to say: ‘Nobody gives a damn about the counties anymore so why not just scrap the whole lot?’
Speaking to an RFU insider last week, they told me: “With match fees and bonuses the RFU spent £3.1m on England’s tour to Australia last summer and yet they want to save peanuts by denying semi-pro National League players the chance to wear an England shirt.
“It’s the only chance some of those guys will ever get to represent their country and they take huge pride in it. Those foreign tours are intense as well as fun and for some players it’s a proven pathway into top-flight rugby later in their careers.
“If you put the England Counties into a triangular competition hosted in, say, France or Scotland, who will be willing to take annual leave for that? No one. People will say ‘stuff county rugby’ and that will affect the County Championship.”
During a week in which former Cornish Pirates prop Jamal Ford-Robinson was called up for training by England head coach Eddie Jones, the irony of this situation will not escape the notice of the many committed devotees of Cornish rugby.
As well as Ford-Robinson, England Counties have in the past been represented by David Strettle, Ben Foden and Shaun Perry, all whom went on to enjoy top-flight careers in the Premiership and with England, so it’s not a bad pathway.
In the past I have questioned the value of county rugby. My gut feeling now, however, is that it is a traditional part of the game that is well worth keeping and I hope enough strident voices are raised to head off this threat at the pass.
The RFU will jettison the England Counties team at its peril.