Gareth Dyer’s rugby column

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Former Preston Grasshoppers player and ex-director of rugby at Lightfoot Green writes every Friday for the Evening Post

Last weekend saw the latest round of action in the pool stages of the European club competitions.

Thus it was a pat on the back for Sale Sharks, Ospreys, Edinburgh, Munster, Newport Gwent Dragons and Zebre.

Yes there were still comprehensive victories for many of the ‘financial elite’.

But the positive results for those previously mentioned did go some way to restore my faith that a broad level of competitiveness remains in the elite European club game – if just for the meantime.

Depressingly, rugby union in the northern hemisphere appears intent on copying the approach of football’s Premier League – hardly a blueprint for ensuring a level playing field or fairness for the game’s stakeholders.

The parallel of enormous proceeds received from bigger and bigger broadcasting deals being directed to an increasingly smaller number of recipients is stark.

A number of other unwanted parallels are starting to become evident.

In football, the England national team’s struggle to win a big tournament is, in part, due to the total reluctance of the elite clubs to support the international game.

Release our players to a national camp for sufficient preparations for an international tournament? You must be joking Mr Hodgson – even if the average fan wants their country to give itself the best opportunity to succeed.

Despite untold riches from the latest TV deal, perhaps the biggest casualty has been investment in grassroots football.

The amount of investment being diverted towards grassroots is a pittance, whatever the smug statements trotted out by the EPL and FA’s mouthpieces.

The elite Premier League clubs select fewer and fewer home-grown players, with the number of English qualified players regularly playing in the Premier League falling each season as clubs target overseas imports to fill their squads and managerial teams.

And finally, the cost of attending live matches slips further out or the reach of families who simply cannot afford for mum and dad and the kids to all attend.

Unfortunately many of these are already inherent in rugby union.

The French broadcasting deal announced last summer – whilst not comparable in terms of numbers with the EPL deal with Sky – was certainly a game changer for northern hemisphere rugby.

As a result, the mega-rich French top 14 clubs are now busy hoovering up global talent at an alarming scale.

We then have the egotistical owners of these mega-rich clubs threatening to keep their players out of their national teams unless their demands are met.

Where football’s main supporter interest has always been its club game, a weakening of the status of the international game in rugby union would be tantamount to signing the sport’s own death warrant.

The impact of the French deal has impacted strongly on the game in the UK, particularly in England where the recent investigation into clubs breaching the Aviva Premiership salary cap was weak and effectively swept the issue under the carpet.

An investigation that was clearly indicating that a number of clubs had breached the rules was suddenly concluded as “no case to answer”.

In October 2013, Edward Griffiths – the then CEO of Saracens – gave a robust defence of why the salary cap in the Aviva Premiership was so important, when he said: “The aim of the agreed salary cap is to create a competitive league and that is what we have in England.”

Suddenly having a competitive league appears to no longer be the most important thing.

No, certain clubs must now have a bigger slice of the 
cake so that they can compete with the wages being 
paid by the super rich French elite.

This then leads to short-term thinking with the recruitment of more foreign imports, less home-grown talent getting an opportunity and ultimately a lot of head scratching as to why England aren’t producing players able to deliver World Cup success.

As was always going to be the case, it is supporters who are bearing the brunt.

The rising cost of tickets – £33 to watch Harlequins versus Cardiff last Sunday seemed excessive but is positively cheap compared to £54 to sit in the grandstand to watch this weekend’s Exeter versus Ospreys match – is now starting to price out the next generation of supporters.

Perversely the answer to many of the game’s problems in the northern hemisphere may be rectified by the concentration of 
finance in a small number of elite clubs and 
provincial teams akin to a Super Rugby style competition.

But given the resistance to change and the urge to protect one’s little acre, I doubt a cure to the game’s ills based on a sound roadmap for the future of the game will arrive any time soon.