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Three countries, one league: how to bolster rugby in Portugal, Spain and Italy

Iberian tussle: VRAC from Spain compete with Lisbon-based Direito in a club match (Miguel Rodrigues) Rugby World

Creating a Mediterranean League would strengthen the player pool in Iberia and Italy, says Portuguese prop Francisco Isaac. But it would need the collaboration of all parties

Aug 2, 2016 7:05 AM EDT

Do you know who the Portuguese club champions are? Or the Spanish? Maybe the Italian? If the answer is no, you’re not alone. Unsurprisingly, the average fan outside those countries doesn’t know the answer, as those three leagues are ‘out of reach’ for many reasons: a lack of profile; a small fan base; quality and quantity way below the great powers of Europe (like the Aviva Premiership, Top 14 or Guinness Pro12); little or no interest by local companies in investing in rugby teams.

As the sport grows globally, Portugal still lives in a sort of rugby Dark Ages, while Spain are trying to take off (once again) and Italy are under a cloud of doubts over their future. But in the 21st century, rugby could use those three countries to further elevate the global standing of the sport.

To that end, it needs new partners, to expand championships or create new ones – in this case in southern Europe. But how can Portugal, Spain and Italy go the extra mile?

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Strengthening the pyramid

Relying solely on national teams is not the solution. You need strong squads and/or regions to attract new players and subject the ones already playing to a tougher competition. Take the Portuguese Premiership: it has ten teams, three or four of which have a realistic shot at the title but only two of which have been champions in the last seven years, CDUL (twice) and GD Direito (five times), with the latter former winning the Iberian Cup and achieving the maiden Portuguese victory in Challenge Cup qualifying.

Portugal’s national teams (XVs and sevens) are on the slide and the quality of the game has gone from stale to chaotic. One way to take local players to a higher level is by giving them the chance of acquiring experience in international club competitions, because it exposes them to other types of rugby and gives them a different view of the sport away from the routine of their domestic competitions.

Keeping the faith: Portuguese rugby has declined since their World Cup exploits of a decade ago (Getty) Rugby World

How can this be done? One way would be to create a Mediterranean League, or ‘Liga Mediterraneo’, though this raises several questions: Which clubs or regions should participate? How should the competition be structured? When should it happen? Where does the funding come from?

Regarding participants, it would be interesting to see the winners and runner-ups of each national championship face each other in a round-robin competition. In this model, six teams would each play five games. For the clubs bagging the top two places it would be a great opportunity for continued growth.

Perhaps you could also award a wildcard to the best ‘Fair Play’ team in each country, although this option runs the risk of lowering the competition’s standards.

Region over club

There is the option of going for a regional team, building set-ups with the best players in Portugal’s south and north regions, and in Italy’s central and north-west regions. Essentially, it would be replacing pride in the club with respect for the region.

This could attract a wider interest from investors and sponsors, as well as build a bigger fan base for the league. The champion side could have a 40% say on the 30-man squad, with the rest being players from the top division.

However, here too lies a problem: training days and location. Where would the training grounds be? Consider the Spanish example: in the central-west region, we have the Madrid teams (CRC Madrid, Alcobendas and Complutense) and the Valladolid teams (El Salvador and VRAC). This would force one part of the selected players to travel for one or two hours to practise with the region’s team.

Steamed up: the Olympus Madrid team after a Challenge Cup match at Worcester in 2010 (Getty Images) Rugby World

Could it be done? And what about Italian franchises Treviso and Zebre? Would they be allowed to play, as they already take part in the high-level Pro12 and European cups?

Whatever the case, it seems clear that regions are the way to go, as you could get more investment, potentially a wider fan basis and stronger sides, and give players from smaller local clubs a taste of international rugby.

Bridging the gap

There is one more advantage to this model: the best players of each club would get to play with each other for five weekends, creating a stepping stone to the national squads beside the U20 national teams. Which in Portugal’s case would be especially good news, as many of the players aged between 19 and 24 (the average age for national squad selection) have no experience of playing with their rivals, making things harder when they get picked for the Portugal team.

So, six teams, in a league of five rounds over five weekends, in a round-robin championship for the first and second year. If this league captures the interest of more investors, it might be possible to welcome more regions and go on to make a new kind of official competition.

You could follow the southern hemisphere example, and have a local clubs competition spanning four to six months (say, September to February) and then on to one or two months of the Liga Mediterraneo (March to April).

Derby duel: Zebre score against Treviso last year. Critics say the Italian clubs are too weak for the Pro12 Rugby World

In case of a clash with the European Nations Cup, the competition would start only in April-May, leaving February and March to the national squads. If they in turn are a problem, you could play it at the same time, giving an opportunity to even more players who are far from the national standards. This benefits the country’s pool, with more and more players suited to serve the national squads in the future.

If all goes well, this would amount to a 30-man squad in the national side, plus another 30 in each region, reaching a total of 60 national-pool prepared players to play at a higher level. Thirty players would be involved in playing for Portugal, Spain or Italy, while the others could represent their regions against the other two countries.

Funding obstacle

The biggest challenge, however, is the investment and budget. From travelling to lodging costs, to marketing and advertisement, the Liga Mediterraneo would naturally have an impact on the annual budget of the teams. Travel between Portugal, Spain and Italy can be costly, with an average of €90-100 per return ticket, even when using low-cost airlines (EasyJet, Vueling, Ryanair, Transavia).

If a team has a maximum of three trips, the total costs would be around €14,000-20,000 a year. This includes flights and hotel stays for a 36-man man squad (30 players, plus six staff). So to address this problem, it’s necessary to bring in investors and convince them it will be advantageous for them.

Pedro Leal, Portugal's sevens captain, in action for his club Direito against VRAC (Miguel Rodrigues) Rugby World

But before you can get the big companies, you’ll need a TV spot. Broadcasting the competition is a huge lure to attract sponsors, though the small number of rugby viewers might be a major problem.

Another way to get sponsors’ investment is by selling naming rights for the competition or for the region. Use the players for marketing and have the local clubs sponsoring the competition in some way (as they will have their own players in the regional team). For instance, each team could contribute €100 per month to the coffers of the Mediterraneo Liga.

In the case of Portugal, with its ten Premiership teams, this would amount to €10,000 (July and August being the off-season), which would be divided equally by the regions.

Working together

It’s important that people in the rugby community trust each other and understand that this type of project requires teamwork. In the end, each region has to welcome players from different clubs and not just the top ones.

It’s possible that during the first and second year, the top investors will derive from companies attached to the many rugby teams (such as Licor Beirão in Lousã or Entrepinares in Valladolid), but in the long run the competition has to be strong enough to make investors ‘fall in love’ and support it.

For them, advertising billboards or a website with banners isn’t enough, it has to be something bigger than that, like TV ads. You need to get investors involved in junior competitions, attract parents and families and have the U10s, U12s and U14s perform activities that create publicity.

Spanish steps: Joan Losada (right) in action for a Spain team that is making waves on the sevens scene Rugby World

And there are other ways of financing the competitions, like asking for help from the governing body or organising fund-raising events in clubs and regional gatherings. A good example would be bank sponsorship. You don’t see the advantages in the short term but if you can stay involved long enough to get 70% of the rugby community to get to know and follow the sponsor, a bank could open hundreds or even thousands of bank accounts, creating a bond between the local teams, players, parents and that sponsor.

The Mediterraneo Liga or ‘Mediterranean Top 6’ should be the way to go for the three nations. Spain, Portugal and Italy need to work together and start to play regularly with each other, opening the international experience to more players than just the national teams. This may be a dream but it could become a reality.

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