World rugby’s governing body the International Rugby board rules with an iron hand, far more so than football bodies FIFA and UEFA, but the success of the Rugby World Cup (in TV viewing terms if not necessarily the quality of the rugby) is brewing up a big row with New Zealand’s All Blacks, the hosts and favourites to win the final against France.
In essence individual nations are not allowed to exploit their own sponsorship deals in a World Cup for fear of jeopardising the IRB’s own lucrative deals.
This, and various other restrictions on money-making activities such as tours too close the finals, has prompted the New Zealand Rugby Union to threaten to pull out of the next World Cup, to be held in England in four years’ time, as it claims the competition costs it $15m.
The IRB’s position so far is to tell the NZRU to get lost.
All this at a time when, according to brand valuation firm Brand Finance, the All Blacks brand is worth $100m, putting it on a par with football clubs ranked ten to 20 in their own list (Manchester United is top at about $640m).
This always happens with successful televised sports of course, with the most successful participants demanding a bigger share of the cake from the country-based governing body. In football FIFA and UEFA have proved remarkably successful at hanging on to their control, probably because the fans still rate the big national competitions ahead of club competitions.
But in international rugby the countries are, in effect the clubs. And a World Cup in England without the All Blacks just wouldn’t be a World Cup (although whoever is the England coach probably wouldn’t complain too much).
Old rugby dinosaurs from the amateur era (the people who now administer the game for the most part) will be muttering into their gin and tonics that this is all dreadful but bound to happen once the game agreed to a World Cup in 1987 and then opened the doors to professionalism in 1995.
Buit you can’t put the after-match shampoo back in the bottle (rugby players are suspiciously well-groomed these days). And the Kiwis will defend their commercial interests just as fiercely as the All Blacks do theirs on the pitch.