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Breathtaking Harlequins great for the game – but that will not make rugby survive financially

Louis Lynagh of Harlequins makes the break and the pass to set up Tyrone Green of Harlequins winning try
In glorious sunshine and a packed stadium, Harlequins stunned Bordeaux

Saturday’s thrilling 42-41 win by Harlequins, over French side Bordeaux-Begles, made a mockery of the severe doubts I voiced about their winning chances in last week’s column.

I was wrong but so were the bookies, who had made Quins 7/1 outsiders to reach the semi-finals of the European Champions Cup. It is more than welcome that we were so mistaken.

Quins have been the authors of so many extraordinary and unlikely rugby victories in the past few seasons that I, and nearly everyone else, should probably by now have learned to caveat any predictions about the West London side with the words “but we are talking about Harlequins”.

Whether this win was better than their comebacks against Bristol Bears or the Exeter Chiefs in past seasons is a moot point but the common denominator of all those triumphs is the ambition to take risks and throw off the shackles of a system-led approach to rugby that is so often extolled in today’s game.

Some might say that this Quins’ win is evidence that my assertions of last week about the ever-increasing power focus of modern rugby and substitutions were also wrong. I concede that I ought not to have limited the teams that are able to counteract these issues to Leinster, Ireland and the All Blacks but I maintain the general points. Make no mistake, Quins had to match Bordeaux’s huge power to enable the win. They did so on the back of physical performances from players like Fin Baxter and his fellow forwards. It was an immense performance from Baxter, deputising for Joe Marler; a performance of old, where a smaller, but more technically proficient prop, out-scrummaged the gigantic, 25-stone Tongan, Ben Tameifuna.

Fin Baxter
Baxter, 22, had a stunning game in France - Getty Images/David Rogers

Tribute should also be made to another Quins’ deputy, scrum-half Will Porter, who made Danny Care’s unavailability a non-decisive factor. Not only was his service to Marcus Smith rapid and reliable, he showed Care-like tendencies in gathering his own chip kick to score the second of his two tries. After the game, Quins’ captain, Stephan Lewies, was keen to stress that “The job is not done yet.” He is right, Quins have to add reliability to the resilience they showed and replicate this feat to reach the European final.

Whatever Quins’ ultimate fate in this competition nobody could criticise the thrilling nature of the match nor legitimately criticise it both as a sporting contest and a piece of entertainment. That brings us back to the other points I made last week about the sustainability of rugby at club level from a financial point of view.

Those people who claim that rugby’s real issue is merely a PR problem have to answer this question: How much more entertaining could you make a game of European club cup rugby? The match was played in glorious weather, in front of a full stadium of loud and loyal fans. It was a game in which the lead changed hands several times, where 12 tries were witnessed, several of which showed immense skill.

The answer, in reality, is that you probably could not do so. If so, this prompts the further question: Why has the competition not been able to emulate its football counterpart – the Uefa Champions League – and proceed as a tournament that does not have a title sponsor but attracts more money by having a raft of non-title sponsors and a huge TV broadcast contract?

The answer to this, most basic, of commercial points is that the problem is not merely presentational, as some claim. It is more fundamental than that. Put simply, rugby is not as big or powerful as football and this leads us back to other basic business issues. There are only two ways to stop losing money and to at least break even over a season. Rugby has to either increase its revenues or decrease its costs.

As the European Champions Cup shows, even the best club rugby product has a ceiling with its commercial attractiveness. Rugby can create more competitions to sell more broadcast rights, but there is no room in the rugby calendar for more tournaments. There is also no way to balance the safety load on players if you create more competitions.

On top of this, if you could, and did, create another commercial property you necessarily detract from the viability of existing properties.

Barring a seismic change in the current rugby structure, like one hemisphere moving its traditional season to match the other hemisphere, the only path to profitability is to cut costs, which goes back to the point I made about cutting the size of squads. One way of doing this is to limit or ban substitutions. If you disagree with this, what suggestions do you have to achieve this goal?

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