Opinion – Restructuring, not restarting, needed to revive Premiership
Print Sport Editor Nick Powell looks at financially motivated plans to restart Rugby Union’s Premiership and ways that this could be avoided.
Rugby and Football are not the same.
In England’s semi-final win against New Zealand at last year’s Rugby World Cup there were a total of 311 tackles shared between each team, in the footballers’ 2-1 defeat at the same stage of the Football World Cup there were only 30.
With aerial duels, the number of close contact situations can be more than doubled but they remain roughly a fifth of what happened in the rugby game, which was 50% shorter as, unlike the football, it didn’t go to extra-time.
Furthermore, tackles in rugby can lead to multiple players being tied in for as long as half a minute, in football it is rare for players to be tussling for the ball for more than a handful of seconds.
So why then, do rugby officials feel that it is comparable to restart top-level rugby as it is for top-level football?
Without team celebrations, with the financial infrastructure for mass, regular testing, and without fans, football can continue as normal, with a relatively low risk for players who can be regularly monitored to ensure their safety and the safety of their families.
It’s not perfect, but it has worked well in Germany, and is vital for leagues that have yet to settle league winners and relegated teams, and is doable for a sport where teams can play twice in a week.
To do the same in rugby however would require major law changes to minimise the risk – and even these would have little effect – with such changes having a significant effect on the integrity of the game both in the short-term and long-term when the game eventually returns to conventional rules.
With salary cap cheats Saracens’ relegation punishment already confirmed, and a clear potential Champion in Exeter (who are top of the league and have been denied the title by Saracens in years the latter were known to have cheated), why on earth are teams, and the Premiership, so desperate to start again?
As is so often the case in sport, money explains this misguided motivation. To understand why this plays such a factor one has to understand the mad race to the top in wages in rugby, that has left a big – but not massive – sport overspending and out of pocket.
Despite a cash injection into the Premiership last year by private equity comapny CVC, every single club, save for Exeter Chiefs, posted a loss in the 2018-19 season. These ranged from £72,000 at Harlequins to £9.3 million at Wasps. Add to that the league’s collective £44 million losses the season before, and the £28.5 million the season before that, and you can understand just how important BT Sport’s inflated TV rights deal is to clubs.
As a result, no matter how pointless, no matter how much of a farce it has to be, clubs are completely dependent on this season being finished so they can earn TV revenues. The game will look like a different sport, transmission will be incredibly high, and players will be wondering what on earth they are doing on the field of play.
Upon the conclusion of the campaign, players will be allowed just two weeks of rest (in which they will still be in full training), before the 2020/21 campaign begins. At best, this will lead to a lower standard of rugby and players being rested left, right and centre, at worst, there will be a huge injury epidemic and players going on strike.
There is an alternative. It would not be without pain for players, but it is a common sense approach that would save the sport in England from completely falling apart further down the line.
Salary cap reductions, combined with a much softer schedule are desperately needed. Some argue that the former suggestion would result in an exodous of English players away from this league, but with the number of highly paid foreign players we have, this is not necessarily the case.
Expand the number of professional clubs to 20, with the current Premiership and top eight from the Championship offered a place in two leagues of ten teams. This would take four weeks out of the season, benefitting all players.
Of course, there would be players unhappy to see their wages reduced, chasing larger salaries in foreign countries. But this was the way the Premiership worked 10 years, and it did work. Rugby has to realise it is a popular sport, but it is not an NFL, it is not a worth a billion, and it never will be.
England players earn £25,000 for every game they play for their country. Combine that with a wage 10 times that (below average for an England player) and you can earn £500,000 a year, with some earning closer to One Million. That is just too much, and if players care about their physical wellbeing, they would do well to realise that.
Unfortunately, for now, this is not going to happen. Players will continue to take ridiculous salaries, wealthy benefactors will continue to poach academy-bred English players from smaller clubs and these smaller clubs will continue to look for cheaper foreign alternatives, working their very best players so hard that they give them injuries, and in the Coronavirus world, illness.
Hopefully common sense will prevail, but even if it does, the long-term financial health of English, and indeed World rugby is in dire straits, unless the former stops pushing spending on its own players and clubs to disproportionate levels.