The first-floor concourse in the west stand at Twickenham has clearly not been swept for a while. The local pigeons have spent the summer roosting overhead and, outside the shuttered Thirst bar, significant heaps of grey-white droppings are piling up. Sadly, it is not even close to being the biggest mess in English rugby, with a steady torrent of toxic news still pounding down on poor, cash-starved Worcester.
Watching things go pear-shaped in a proud Premiership heartland is not how anyone wants to commence a shiny new rugby union season. Which is a crying shame in itself. It would have been lovely to have spent more time discussing rugby at Thursday’s season launch: whether Leicester can win back-to-back titles, whether Bath will finally escape the trough of despair or whether some of the league’s precocious young talent can kick on again.
But that would be to ignore the onrushing financial bull elephant in the room. The Guardian has spoken to several sources who say almost half of the 13 Premiership clubs are either heavily in debt or have an owner who is potentially in danger of losing faith. The curse of Covid has accelerated the situation but it has also exposed problems that have existed for ages.
Sometimes it feels as if club rugby has been under the cosh for almost as long as Steve Wright has been hosting his afternoon show on BBC radio. And the factoids are getting worse. Did you know that Worcester are over £20m in debt? Or that energy bills at every club stadium are looking set to quadruple?
Everything is relative, of course. Those of us old enough to remember what it was like in the Premiership’s earliest days, with mismatches commonplace and crowds often modest, can confirm the product is as competitive and effervescent as it has ever been. Harlequins’ Tabai Matson, who has coached widely, thinks likewise: “I truly believe it’s the toughest competition in the world.”
The danger, of course, is that the gloom-laden talk about Worcester morphs into a self-fulfilling prophecy for the entire league. “The fact is we have a massive market opportunity with club rugby,” insists Simon Massie-Taylor, Premiership Rugby’s chief executive. “There are nine million rugby fans in England and in club rugby we have a relatively small proportion of that. We believe that given the quality of the product we can attract more people to it.”
But who and what will people be watching in a few years’ time? An emaciated Premiership, a cannibalised Championship, fewer professional clubs with less central funding? For a snapshot of English rugby’s current disconnect you need only wander into the Twickenham shop, now contracted out from the Rugby Football Union. Pretty much every item on sale has a rose emblazoned on it; go in search of club-related merchandise and you will struggle. Which, ironically, reinforces Massie-Taylor’s stat and makes it harder still to win floating hearts and minds.
Meanwhile, across the Channel, the Top 14 continues to grow in popularity, with next year’s World Cup in France offering another springboard to even greater prominence. Yes, there are crucial differences in the French model, not least the public funding of club stadiums. But the point is that club rugby is generating big bucks in a way that British club rugby, as things stand, is not.
Which means hard choices are needed. Either the sport must cut its cloth, argues Steve Diamond, Worcester’s director of rugby, or it has to change its mindset radically. “It’s about where we want to take the sport. If we want big investors from other parts of the world then they’ll want superstar players. They’ve got to look at how they finance that.” In the shorter term that is clearly going to be difficult. “I think if you had the owners in here and I was one of them I’d be saying keep the salary cap as it is for five years, definitely.”
Some of Diamond’s proposed savings will send a shiver down the spines of his counterparts. “The days have gone, in my opinion, where you can have a director of rugby and a head coach. You’ve got two people doing one job, so you’ve got to amalgamate it. Do you need forwards coaches, defence coaches and lots of other coaches? Do you need three people in the media department? We have got to look at that, as well as how many players you need.” As he told BBC 5 live, doing nothing no longer feels like an option. ‘We need a solution because none of the clubs are making money. Worcester are just first in the line of being exposed to the frailties of professional sport after the pandemic.”
It is hard to disagree. One or two England internationals might dispute Diamond’s pithiest soundbite – “A top-class rugby union player is a Coronation Street actor compared to a Premiership footballer who is a Hollywood star” – but it is true for the vast majority. And with everyone’s disposable income set to fall, this year’s early-season attendance figures are going to be watched more intently than ever.
Even that assumes that everyone can afford to keep their floodlights on as the wintry, recession-darkened nights draw in. The bigger headache, though, is the relationship between club rugby’s income and player expenditure. Cutting the salary cap to £5m from £6.4m has been some help – Diamond reckons a properly-run club should now be able to break even on 6,000 crowds – but also risks some possible side effects. At what point do the game’s top players, with their domestic salaries falling, start being courted by investors less interested in, say, propping up Worcester than in some kind of global super league?
The answer, as ever, lies in reorganising and dovetailing the domestic and international fixture lists. Less is more, if not in every respect. This season, for example, England squad regulars could miss half their club’s Premiership games. Much also rests on the terms of any new long-term deal between the clubs and the RFU, with the existing eight-year agreement set to run out in 2024. Never has there been a stronger case, theoretically, for central contracts. Then again, just imagine if Marcus Smith starts playing for Harlequins as rarely as Jonny Bairstow appears for Yorkshire? What a game changer that would be. But something has to give or cleaning up after Twickenham’s resident pigeons will soon be the least of rugby’s problems.
September 3, 2022 at 12:38PM Robert Kitson