YESf only everything in English club rugby’s garden was as impressively flawless as the pitch at Franklin’s Gardens. There are less smooth billiard tables and the stage is perfectly set for a spectacular 250th east Midlands derby between Northampton and Leicester. “It’s the biggest game of the year,” murmurs Lewis Ludlam, the Saints captain, as his side prepares to go toe to toe with the defending Premiership champions.
Sadly, though, there can be no avoiding the financial undercurrents currently destabilizing two of their neighbors. As the pips squeak louder at Worcester and Wasps, so the mood of the whole English game darkens. Any league is only as strong as its weakest link and, right now, the Premiership feels as vulnerable as at any stage since Richmond and London Scottish vanished off the professional radar in March 1999.
Ludlam, as an England squad member and loyal one-club man, feels keenly for those fellow pros stuck in the middle. Grateful as he is for the efforts of Northampton’s chief executive, Mark Darbon, to keep Saints’ players updated on their club’s own secure position, he cannot imagine how Worcester counterparts like Ted Hill must be feeling.
“It’s a horrible thought,” he says, flatly. “All Ted should have to worry about is performing at the weekend. But for a lot of these boys it’s about whether they’ll have money to provide for their families and to pay their mortgages. Or whether they will have a job in the next year.”
For Ludlam and other prominent English players it is increasingly obvious that broader issues urgently need confronting. It can be difficult for the majority of players in the thick of the fray to see the bigger picture with real clarity. Others like Ludlam, who featured in all three Tests on England’s summer tour in Australia despite a badly injured thumb – “Basically I had no tendon to grip with, it was just taped up stiff” – could give any administrator a lesson in terms of honesty , eloquence and good judgment.
Take Ludlam’s instinctive view, for example, on the league’s future. “I do think we need to look at the structure of the Premiership.
“The position a lot of clubs have found themselves in over the last couple of years is no joke anymore. We can really see how clubs are struggling now.
“There needs to be chats about the way we structure the season and the way we grow the game as players – because for some rugby really is on its last legs. If we carry on going the way we’re going, it doesn’t look good.”
One easy fix, he believes, would be a clearer separation between club fixtures and international weekends. “People want to come out and see the international guys play and we want to play and contribute to the club. In football you have an international break.
“I sometimes wonder if there’s a way we can reduce the number of fixtures and get people excited about just one or two competitions. That way we could go out and play for our international team and our club as well. Less is more.”
Another no-brainer is making the game more attractive to a wider cross-section of the public, whether through free-to-air television exposure or more modern methods.
“I don’t believe there is any way Formula One is a more exciting sport than rugby. But the way they have set up the product, through Netflix’s Drive to Survive, encourages people to get behind it. People who have never watched F1 are saying: ‘This is exciting, this is a real life story.’ If you can get people involved in something like that in rugby it can help grow the sport as well.”
The 26-year-old Ludlam grew up outside rugby’s mainstream himself, as did his father, Arron, a football and boxing aficionado with Palestinian and Egyptian family roots.
“If Spurs won he’d have a good week, if they lost he’d be miserable all week,” grins Ludlam. ‘It was pretty much do or die. No way would my dad have got into rugby without me playing it.”
It took his mother, Dorinda, to intervene and set Lewis on a different course. “My mum was like: ‘You go down the boxing gym with your dad, your dad’s your football coach, can we do something you can find your own way in?’ Then England won the 2003 World Cup and I thought: ‘This looks good.’ I turned up at Ipswich rugby club wearing bright gold football boots. People were thinking: ‘Who is this guy?’ I was celebrating after I scored tries like I’d scored a goal. My nickname was Golden Boots for two or three years.”
As a mixed-race kid, there were other cultural differences to be overcome as well. “At school I was one of the only ones my colour. Kids don’t want to exclude you but you still feel: ‘Where do I fit into things here?’ Then you get down the rugby club and suddenly it doesn’t matter. I felt part of it. You find your tribe. But how many kids are missing out on something that has allowed me to travel the world and given me some of my best friends?”
It is another reason why he feels so passionately about the future. “How do we reach out to younger audiences, how do we get people behind it? That’s what I think is really important.
“There’s a fantastic opportunity to get the game out there to people from all different backgrounds, all different classes and show the game is suitable and welcoming for everyone.
“People can see with the likes of Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler that the England team draws on players from different backgrounds. Hopefully that opens rugby up to a massive new audience, which it needs.
“When I was growing up rugby was an old boys, private school sort of sport. A large percentage of our season ticket holders at Northampton are between 60 and 80 years old.
“How do we get younger audiences into rugby because in 20 years’ time they are the people who are going to be paying to come and watch us. We can offer a lot to people who aren’t involved in rugby. This is a great sport with unbelievable values that they’re going to carry forward for the rest of their lives.”
If the passionate, impressive Ludlam plays half as well as he speaks, Leicester are in for a tough afternoon.