Time for clubs to rally around England
June 30, 2010
A successful England side will no doubt benefit the game at all levels © Getty Images
We've all seen the emails over the past month. To help with a research project all people with IQs under 20 or very small willies or other such inadequacies have been asked to fly white flags with a red cross on them from their cars.
If the insults were supposed to act as a deterrent they failed. Despite England's abject performances at the World Cup the flag sellers have had a field day and are probably the only ones laughing all the way to the bank at the moment. And love 'em or hate 'em the sheer volume of flags not just in one city but all over the country prove beyond doubt that international sport can captivate the public in a way that club football - or rugby - never can.
About 20 million people watched England's humiliation at the hands of Germany on British television and about the same number watched England win the Rugby World Cup in 2003. Now the recriminations have begun the favourite theory seems to be that the England players were exhausted and under-prepared because the Premier League really runs football in England and the national side has to play second fiddle.
I have listened to a number of pundits arguing that the Champions League is bigger and better than the World Cup but the viewing figures tell a different story. A Champions League final involving Manchester United or Chelsea will never get that sort of TV audience.
Rugby should take notice. Once again Premier Rugby is flexing its muscles and threatening to withdraw cooperation with the Rugby Football Union if they do not scale back on internationals even though not one of their clubs would be viable without the proportion of revenue from those matches which is passed on to them by the RFU.
The top football clubs can afford to be selfish. They attract huge crowds - on average Manchester United are watched by four times as many spectators as Leicester Tigers and they are streets ahead of any other rugby club in England - and earn a fortune from television rights.
Rugby clubs are fooling themselves. The average attendance for last season was just over 13,000 and that was boosted by some spectacular crowds at special event matches staged at Wembley and Twickenham. Television revenues are tiny. Guinness have scaled back their involvement with the Premiership and at the moment there is still no title sponsor for next season even though it begins on September 4 - just over two months away.
The biggest surge in new converts - playing and watching - was after England won the World Cup and the biggest boost to the club game now would come from them being back in contention next year. Premiership bosses should be doing everything in their power to assist England but they are still living under the mistaken illusion that international rugby undermines their business. I am not advocating an extension to the international programme - we do see far too many meaningless international games - but a successful England will boost crowds at Newcastle and Leeds far more than any marketing campaign.
I could not finish this column without a mention of my old friend Andy Ripley. He was a truly remarkable guy - they really broke the mould after he was created - who was made for rugby but only really discovered it after he left school. His eyesight was never very good but he overcame that handicap too and it was a tribute to his wonderful athleticism that he managed to make such a mark after having missed out on the formative years. Ripley on the rampage was a sight to behold.
He loved to be thought of as a gentle hippy with not a combative gene in his body but in reality he was one of the most competitive athletes on the planet, as he showed when he beat everybody in Superstars and then went on to become a World Champion at indoor rowing. I shall never forget his delight when he discovered he was good on the rowing machine - 'Jonny (I think he was the only bloke who ever called me Jonny) it's one thing you'll never beat me at,' he said. 'It's simple, at 6ft 5in my arms and legs are longer than yours so I go further with every stroke, brilliant.'
A couple of years later he called me to ask if I knew of Bewl Water - a reservoir not far from my home. It transpired that he had always felt a bit of a fraud because he was a rowing champion who had never been on the water, and he had seen an advert for rowers to join a Veteran Eight at Bewl.
Several years later when he was approaching 50 he had mastered the real thing so well he went back to Cambridge to study for a doctorate and almost rowed in the Boat Race - vintage Ripley. It was absolutely typical that when he was diagnosed with Prostate Cancer he chose to tackle it head on and use his misfortune to help others. Every time he met up with old team-mates or adversaries he would berate them - 'Have you had a test? - not just a PSA reading, the only reliable indicator is to get a doctor to stick his fingers up your arse. Go and do it tomorrow.'
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and currently the managing director of London Welsh