In a previous lifetime we worked for one of Rupert Murdoch‘s organs. It was the early 1990s and giving rugby some space was part of their strategy for establishing themselves in Ireland.

Long story short, World Cup-winning Wallaby captain Nick Farr-Jones was in town, and whether he was doing a column for the paper or whatever, we were asked to meet him en route to a Five Nations Championship game one Saturday afternoon and bung him a ticket.

Jury‘s Hotel was the agreed meeting point. He showed up on time, delighted with himself. He had walked down Baggott Street and along Pembroke Road, and by the time he arrived in the hotel foyer he was buzzing, like a kid with a free pass to Willy Wonka‘s Chocolate Factory. It seemed odd that a seasoned, champion rugby Test player should be so excited about watching Ireland play whoever it was they were playing, but he was.

“Mate, this is incredible,” he gushed. “We have nothing like this at home!”

We had always taken it for granted. Even though rugby was a minority sport in this country, it grabbed the attention of a broad audience on four Saturdays every year between the depths of winter and the arrival of spring.

Year after year it would pop its head up, and then at the turn of the century it stuck its neck out and expanded to a six-team show, welcoming the Italians on board. Even if it was a bit late for the fine group of players assembled under coach Georges Coste – they beat Ireland three times on the trot from 1995-1997 – still it was a new dawn. And Rome was welcomed onto the circuit with open arms.

The tournament continued to grow steadily, and feed those around its table. The impact of the newcomers, however, was lamentable. Italy have come last in 13 of the 19 Championships. Their inability to make an impact at Test level is inseparable from their failure – until this season – to compete effectively at club level. This is in part due to their own disorganisation and in part to not being taken seriously by their partners in Celtic Rugby, whom they joined as part of the Magners League in season 2010/‘11.

So when Georgia got to a point where they climbed two places above Italy in the World Rugby rankings folks started asking about swapping the two teams in the Championship. Why not promotion and relegation? Having slogged hard to get in from the cold, the Italians could recognise the Georgians‘ ambition. If the optics weren‘t – and still aren‘t – great of a statistically superior team playing in Europe‘s second tier while a statistically inferior one is in the top flight, then the sound of the closed door being locked didn‘t come across too well either. But Six Nations chief executive John Feehan not only turned the key, he chucked it away.



There wasn‘t a concerned parents march on the Six Nations HQ when Feehan parted company with the tournament last year: folks don‘t get overheated about the comings and goings at boardroom level in institutions like the Six Nations, and he didn‘t endear himself to the man in the street in the way he poured cold water over the Georgians.

His response reminded you a bit of the coach who loses patience with one stupid question too many at a post-match press conference. It may be because he has a low threshold for that kind of stuff, and it may be because he has far more knowledge than the people asking the questions – which should always be the case. Whatever, Feehan could have been kinder in the way he lowered the Lelos.

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It‘s worth looking at the unlikelihood of Georgia ever pulling up a chair, if only to understand how the Six Nations is constituted. As it sounds, there are six shareholders. Equal ones at that, so when the Italians were brought on board in 2000 it wasn‘t like the old days of rugbydom where you had only the founding fathers using the executive washroom and the add-ons scrambling around for a jacks on the lower floors. Italy‘s vote carries the same weight as Ireland‘s. It would require unanimity to shuffle the deck. The game ain‘t changing lads. But neither is it looking after itself too well.

June 23, 2016 is probably best remembered for the surprise result of the Brexit Referendum. Overnight it changed the complexion of lots of things. Of lesser impact was the news three weeks earlier that RBS would no longer be sponsoring the Six Nations. It was the end of a relationship that had started with the 2003 Championship, and was recognised in the industry as one of the most solid partnerships in sport.

At the time, John Feehan said: “All good things must come to a natural end at some point. As mutually beneficial as the relationship is, it is now time after 15 successful and fulfilling years (it would end officially a year later) to seek a new title sponsor to partner our great event and go forward with us into the future.”

Feehan was stretching painfully to paper over the crack that had opened up on the Six Nations council over the issue of extending the RBS deal. The bank had been paying £10.75m a year for putting their name on the side of the Championship wagon. They offered to increase that to £13.75m a year for the next four seasons.

In a difficult market Feehan thought it was very good business and presented it as such to the council. The Scots and Welsh representatives reckoned there was more money out there, and voted to knock it back. They asked Feehan to get an independent valuation on the sponsorship.

That valuation supplied low end and high end figures. The high end tallied with the deal he was presenting. Nevertheless, he was sent back to RBS to do better.

Initially they told him to bog off. Then it suited them for branding purposes to drop NatWest, part of the RBS group, into the rugby gap for a year. The wedge matched the circumstances in which the deal had been done.

It was reported in October last year that HSBC, who had been sponsor of the Lions tours to South Africa in 2009 and Australia 2013, would ride to the rescue. That never materialised. Instead, six weeks ago, Guinness were announced as the new partner. It‘s understood that deal is for circa £8.5m a year – £5m less than what RBS offered originally – for six years, beginning with this season‘s tournament.

If that sounds like somehow slipping into reverse with a game, and a tournament, that has never been more popular, it‘s because running the Six Nations show is a bit like herding cats. The council comprises the CEOs from each of the six nations, along with each country‘s other representative on World Rugby. So, 12 men around the table arguing the toss about how much cash the cow can be milked for, and when will it be delivered to their door. By which they mean the door of the country they represent.

So everyone has an agenda. Everyone has a horse to trade. In these circumstances it‘s easy enough to see how someone could declare a pretty good deal to be a crock. And how the organisation could end up with less instead of more.

Indeed, it‘s redolent of the demise of ERC five years ago. That body was supplanted by EPCR to a soundtrack that cash for all would be plucked from the trees like low-hanging fruit. You may remember talk of the suite of sponsors that would beat a path to the door of the new Champions Cup. Where once there was only Heineken, paying £10m a year, soon there would be a gang of five each ponying up £4m. Would you believe, it never happened. So Heineken came back on board, as the sole sponsor, for £4m less than they had been paying in the first place. Great bit of business there lads.

Perhaps with a view to the Six Nations getting more bang for their buck, a review of its governance was conducted last season. It was carried out by Ian Ritchie, then CEO of the (English) RFU. It‘s understood he consulted with various stakeholders before delivering to his fellow council members in January 2018.

A Six Nations spokesperson was unable last week to comment on its content, or indeed if it was propping up a wonky table in a back room of HQ, or gathering dust on a shelf. It is understood the report called for an infusion of independent thinking to the council: a couple of independent directors and an independent chairman. It‘s ironic that Ritchie was calling for independence when he was a council member himself.

You‘d have thought that if the Six Nations were really keen on reviewing their governance then they would have got, well, an independent agency to do the job. After all during the RBS saga they had been happy to go outside to get a value on their brand.

Five months after delivering his review Ritchie announced he would be leaving the RFU for none other than Premiership Rugby (PRL), an organisation with whom the RFU had been at loggerheads on and off over control of players and competitions. Staggering stuff. So in January he is telling the Six Nations they need to get on board the Independence Express; in May he is joining the organisation who had been saying the same thing to ERC before tipping them over the edge in 2014. The meat in the sandwich was John Feehan, who parted company with the Six Nations in April. Neither Ritchie nor Feehan was available to comment last week.

Meantime, we wonder what Feehan‘s successor, Ben Morel – formerly of the NBA – makes of it all. Might he think that if you want to sort tv and sponsorship deals then you leave it in the hands of those best suited to the task? And if you want to review your governance then ask an independent source? That‘s what World Rugby did when they wanted the same job done. Instead the Six Nations missed the money shot on sponsorship. Then, for a contemplative exercise, they turned to a man who is now heading up PRL, an outfit that would like to shrink-wrap the Championship to accommodate better the club game.

We don‘t know if Nick Farr-Jones is as enthused about this great tournament as he was back in the early ‘90s. The houses are almost always full, the atmosphere truly is special, and frequently the rugby provides top quality entertainment. But you have to wonder about some of those steering the ship. And how we avoid hitting the rocks.

Sunday Indo Sport


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