Whether you’re a player, coach or fan involved in rugby union; everyone in this country knows how important the next 18 months are to the growth of the sport globally.
The fast and frantic sevens version of the game will make its first appearance in the Olympics at Rio 2016, but that’s to follow what is expected to be the biggest Rugby World Cup to date, England 2015.
The six-week festival of Rugby, starting on the September 18, has already seen many of the matches sold out, and Bedford Blues chairman Geoff Irvine is hoping that can trickle down to increased numbers going to Greene King IPA Championship matches.
Bedford had the third-highest average attendance for the 2014/15 season with 2,503, and the Blues chairman – who works at the RFU as chairman of the Greene King IPA Championship Clubs – is hoping a successful tournament on the pitch for England will trickle down to increased numbers going through the turnstiles for club matches.
“There is no doubt in my mind, being so closely connected with the RFU, that a successful England team cascades down. The feel good factor from a successful England team works right through the game,” explains Irvine.
Dan Cole, Owen Farrell and Billy Twelvetrees, to name but a few, have all played for Bedford before going on to earn England caps, and Irvine believes the wealth of young talent at this level is down to the EQP.
He says, “As part of the EQP (English-qualified players) rule we have to have 16 players in our match day squad that are England qualified. I think that’s absolutely right and the way it should be as it helps out our national team; we must not go the way of football, that’s for sure.”
Another problem Rugby seems to be handling much better than their round ball friends is their finances, with very few clubs spending large percentages of their turnover on players’ wages – a big reason behind that is the salary cap restrictions.
Despite the restrictions on players’ wages, clubs can still find themselves in financial trouble, though. An example this season has been Plymouth Albion, who partly because of the distractions off the field, found themselves stranded at the bottom of the Championship table and will play next season in National One.
Irvine believes that is an example for the rest of the clubs in the second tier, to make sure it doesn’t happen again, saying: “I said at the time when Plymouth first got in to trouble, ‘there but for the grace of god go any of us.’
“Unfortunately Plymouth had a Geoff Irvine in adverted commas that they fell out with, and they got used to a certain level of income that wasn’t sustained. So they ended up in financial trouble, and that’s something we must not allow here to happen here.”
With the Championship clubs realising more funding is needed if the quality of the division is to continue to improve, Irvine was spear-heading that drive.
The Bedford chairman represented Championship clubs at the home of English rugby, and he was able to help to increase the amount received to what is believed to be £500,000 per club per season.
Irvine was quick to stress, though, that just because there is an increase in money, it doesn’t mean the clubs should be irresponsible with it, again referring to football as an example.
Irvine said: “Obviously the increase in funding should help the standard of rugby at this level, player recruitment being a big part of that.
“But what we all have to be very careful of is where this money goes, this is why we specifically allocated the money to medical insurance cover of the players and the improvement of facilities.
“What we don’t want to happen is we finish up like football, where all the extra money that comes in to the game disappears straight out the game in the pockets of the players,;don’t get me wrong, the players deserve to be paid a fair wage.
“They put their bodies on the line week in week out and give great entertainment, but you can’t have a situation where the books don’t balance forever.
“We’ve got to produce, not just here at Bedford, but all Championship and indeed all Premiership clubs have got to produce a sustainable model.”
The importance of player recruitment is still very important to the Championship product, and Irvine was quick to stress that himself. With the Blues desperate to climb back up the table, Mike Rayer has been hard at work already over the close season as they have been quick to announce a host of new players. Irvine believes that is going well.
“Recruitment is going well, yes, we’ve just got the sort of final pieces of the puzzle to put together in the next few weeks and that is trying to work out who we will be getting from Saracens.
“The information we have got at the moment is that we will have regular uninterrupted use of a number of quality players.
“That has been one of the issues this year for us, but in all fairness to Saracens when we sat down at the beginning of the season they indicated certain players we could have, it just didn’t happen mainly because their injury problems was worse than ours!”
Wherever the Blues are in the table, Goldington Road continues to attract a greater number of people than their rivals. The chairman is obviously grateful for that, and with the hard work being put in between now and the start of next season, he is hoping they will be rewarded for their loyalty with an improvement in results on the field.
“The support has been fantastic,” quotes the Blues chairman. “I feel disappointed for the fans because they have supported us, stood behind us, and no excuses we just haven’t performed appropriately. I’m not making any excuses and I’m not going to bore people to tears with that, the league table doesn’t lie and 10th is probably where we belong.
“What we have to do now is put that behind us and look to recruit well. That gets more and more difficult because of how much money Ealing are going to spend on players next year, more and more money going into the players. Nottingham have lost three or four players who have all been attracted by bigger wages.
“Because of all that, we’re tackling pre-season differently. The lads are having a few weeks off but they’re going to come back in May, we will be on and off but we will working during the whole summer, we didn’t get off to a good start last year and we must get off to a good start next year.”
Whether the Blues can get off to a good start in a league that is becoming harder and harder each season remains to be seen, however with that start going on whilst this country hosts the biggest celebration of rugby in the world, perhaps the Blues can seize a wonderful opportunity.
With a wider audience able to see the reasons why we love this sport, and Irvine looking to guide the club successfully for one last season, an opportunity of success is there for taking for Bedford on and off the Goldington Road slope, and Mr Irvine is working extremely hard to do just that.