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DG #51 preview: English rugby’s downward spiral

London Irish, which filed for administration in June 2023, play Leicester Tigers on 27th November 2022

The 51st issue of Delayed Gratification features an article by Duncan Craig about last season’s annus horribilis in English rugby, which saw three Premiership teams bite the dust. Matthew Lee spoke to Duncan about why he wrote about what went wrong in the sport he loves.

Can you tell us about your own interest in rugby and why you wanted to write this story?
Duncan Craig: I played rugby for 25 years, starting out in the under-5s team at our local club and progressing to the England U19 team, where I was fortunate enough to play with a couple of lads who’d go on to star in England’s World Cup-winning team in 2003. I was never on that level, but as a fan I was world class: seduced by watching club teams such as Bath, Leicester and Harlequins, and getting my first taste of live international rugby when Will Carling’s England beat Australia in front of a raucous Twickenham in 1988.

Rugby during my lifetime (I’m 47) has undergone immeasurable change. Amateurism has become professionalism, players of average build have become primed physical specimens, tackles have become collisions, and the game has become big business. But somewhere along the line something’s gone badly astray – particularly in England. When three historic clubs from a country’s top league are folding in a single season, as happened in 2022/23, then a nadir has surely been reached. I wanted to know how this could happen – and also to delve into the human cost of such failings.

In a nutshell, what has gone wrong?
Expenditure has exceeded income – and for far too long. As Welsh legend Jonathan Davies points out in the story, this isn’t rocket science: it’s simply a question of clubs and unions paying out – on stadia, on facilities, on player salaries – more than they’ve got coming into their coffers through either gate money or shares of broadcasting pots and sponsorship. All three Premiership clubs that failed (Worcester, Wasps and London Irish) did so in their individual ways, but that was the common theme and in some cases the scale of debt was mind-blowing. The model was – and still is – too reliant on deep-pocketed benefactors such as Cecil Duckworth, the much-loved former owner of Worcester, and a system had been created that didn’t allow for rigorous scrutiny of either those running the clubs, or those clubs’ bottom lines. As many people I spoke to argued, this was a calamity that most saw coming – which must only add to the sense of anger and frustration among fans.

What do you think needs to be done to revive the sport in England?
There’s little wrong with the sport itself, ironically. The skill and spectacle are on a different plane to when I was playing the game. Which suggests the problem is partly one of marketing. Get tens of thousands through the gate every week, and TV companies desperately trying to outbid one another for rights to broadcast games, and many of the financial problems disappear. But at the same time there needs to be better regulation: bodies with real teeth to keep the clubs on the straight and narrow. In addition, grassroots rugby needs to be re-energised and a sensible solution found to the conundrum of how you make a game built on physical dominance safe for players of all ages and levels.

Why did you choose to report from La Rochelle?
Because everything that the English game is getting wrong at the moment, France seems to be getting right. When England were humiliated 10-53 at Twickenham in March in the Six Nations it felt like more than just an on-field battering. It was a ringing endorsement of France’s thriving club system which prizes prudence, transparency and sustainable investment – rather than short-term success built on financial profligacy. La Rochelle, a small but fervently supported team crafted into a European superpower that has won back-to-back European titles, is the epitome of that. Oh, and it’s a beautiful city!

You can read the full feature by Duncan Craig in issue 51 of Delayed Gratification, available from our online shop here.

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