England’s Rugby Football Union has set its sights high.
It’s latest four-year mission statement includes the ambition to make rugby England's “strongest sport and the world’s leading rugby nation”. The announcement comes two years after the national manager, Australia's Eddie Jones, declared that English rugby has no world-class players.
Is this target just boardroom spin, or could the RFU really blow a wind of change through English sport?
Surprising as it may seem, the ambition to become the world’s leading rugby nation is probably less of a challenge than to become the nation’s strongest sport. That’s because the biggest challenge it faces is not so much the prowess of other rugby nations, but the overwhelming popularity and international dominance of England’s Premier League – at home and abroad.
Association football (that’s the one played without helmets, for our American readers), by most measures (audience, number of players, commercial deals etc) is the biggest sport in the world. Within that, the English Premier League, by many measures (see here) is the world’s top football league.
It’s not so much that rugby has an uphill battle. It’s more that it’s trying to get six prop-forwards to dance on the head of a pin after a victory meal at Nando’s.
Not just that but the RFU is aiming at something even English football has failed at: to dominate at home and internationally: while the English Premier League is all conquering, the performance of England’s national football team is pitiful.
To assess whether rugby union have any chance of succeeding in this lofty twin ambition, we first need to be clear on the parameters. The RFU isn’t looking to be the biggest, or richest sport in England, just the “strongest”. So, on some measures (say, barbell squats,) they already wipe the floor with footballers. The RFU has another definition:
“Our definition of strongest isn’t necessarily biggest,” says the RFU chief exec, Steve Brown. “We want to be the best in the country in terms of the way the game is governed and set standards that are a step change for us and other organisations as well.”
Fair enough, you might think, but it’s hardly a battle cry that’s going to get palms sweating, and lager louts chanting.
However, while human virtues are most often cited when it comes to sporting success – passion, determination, flair, grit – in modern sport it is structural and governance factors that determine whether a nation can maintain true international dominance and leadership.
Consider the contradiction of the success of England’s Premier League compared with the performance of England’s national football team, which recently lost to Iceland, a country with a population 180 times smaller. These two extremes are structurally linked. The Premier League is reliant on foreign talent – players and managers – in order to keep the commercial machine moving. As a result, the development of home grown talent plays second fiddle, at best. The simultaneous success and failure of English football is not an accident but a logical consequence of the beautiful game’s structure.
Compare that with the philosophy of the RFU: “We want to protect everything that is great about this sport and every person that plays we want to take care of," says the RFU’s Brown. "We want to take care of the sport itself and make sure it is still a relevant and appropriate game for the modern generation.”
Anyone running a large complex operation knows to succeed you need a clear goal, a dispassionate assessment of assets and a plan to put them to work. The RFU has a clear target. Its report makes it clear the organisation understands the power of data, technology and innovation, both on and off the field. And its plan to ‘grow the rose’ can be summarised succinctly as ‘protect, engage, grow, win’. You can read the full report here.
Today, France has the richest rugby competition, while New Zealand, a country with less than a tenth of its population, is the world’s preeminent rugby nation over decades. There will be many reasons for New Zealand’s success, but if you were to pick one, it shouldn’t be passion.
Even without taking on the world, English rugby has its own challenges. Concern over player safety, punishing season schedules, increasing calls to better protect children. England hosted the most recent Rugby World Cup and flunked out at pool stage. A backward-looking assessment does not look good. But if the RFU says it is going to make rugby England’s strongest sport through better governance, there is reason to take them seriously.