Edinburgh boss Richard Cockerill has called for the Guinness PRO14 to introduce a salary cap to help clubs cope with the impact of the coronavirus crisis and make it a more competitive league. A new campaign kicks off this weekend under a cloud of uncertainty with only the first eight rounds of fixtures confirmed and no South African teams taking part until at least 2021, if at all.

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The leading Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italian sides will all lose huge swathes of players to national duty after the first two rounds for an extended seven-week Test period where resources will be stretched to the limit at many clubs.

With recruitment largely on hold given the financial plight affecting all the home unions, Cockerill believes it is time for the PRO14 – which Leinster have won for the last three years and five of the last eight – to follow the example of England’s Gallagher Premiership and the French Top 14.

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“We don’t have relegation so if there’s no battle at the top and bottom, we have to make the league a little more interesting from that point of view,” said the former England hooker.

“We want all sides to be competitive and when you look at the resources and the way things are going with Covid, maybe it’s time for a PRO14 salary cap, like the Premiership and French league, so everyone’s playing off the same budget. Then it’s about recruitment and coaching, bringing young guys through and being very selective in the number of players you can pick rather than just teams with more money having bigger squads.”

The English Premiership has operated a basic £7m salary cap for the last three seasons while the Top 14 is poised to reduce its current £10.3m (€11.3m) cap to £9.1m (€9.94m) from 2021 because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Cockerill admits bringing in a similar policy for the PRO14 would have to be phased in over at least two or three seasons to allow for player contracts already in place. “With the current climate with Covid, and given the teams that have the most money are generally the most successful, then maybe that’s something worth looking at – making it a £6.5million or £7million salary cap to even up the playing field,” he said.

“It was brought in to open up the Premiership. Generally, the best-run teams are the ones who are in the mix year in, year out. I’m not hard and fast on it but in the situation we’re going through right now, it’s certainly worth having a look at.

“I know that’ll give the s**ts to all the teams that spend lots of money and might help some of us that don’t spend lots of money, but maybe my agenda is different from the Leinsters, Munsters and Ulsters of this world.”

Cockerill expects to lose at least twelve players to Scotland duty next month and several more to Fiji, although influential No8 Bill Mata will not be available to club or country after being ruled out for up to eight weeks with a damaged ankle ligament.

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With no budget currently to bring in extra cover, Edinburgh – who finished top of Conference B last season but lost to Ulster in the semi-finals – will be forced to give youngsters and players from Scotland’s semi-professional Super6 set-up game-time over the coming months.

Cockerill is philosophical about the challenges ahead, given the potentially catastrophic consequences for the whole sport of an extended period without fans in stadiums. “There is a threat to professional rugby worldwide, never mind just Scotland,” he added. 

“If you’re not producing any money then you’re not going to have a professional game, so it’s obviously a concern at the back of everyone’s mind, players and coaches. We’ve just got to keep doing our jobs and putting a good product on the field.

“If we get to the Six Nations and there is no crowd then it is clearly going to be an issue and then we have to readjust what we do and who gets paid what and who does what. It won’t be unique to me and this team, it will be the same for us all, unfortunately.”

In that context, Cockerill was sanguine about a PRO14 fixtures schedule that will see Edinburgh play on four successive Monday nights through November, potentially depriving him of some players returning from Scotland duty. “The Test matches will happen on Saturday and I’m sure most Test squads will want their whole squad to train on Mondays and Tuesdays, so I don’t think anyone is really sure how that is going to work,” he added.

“But if PRO14 are telling us that Premier Sports think Monday night is the best TV slot, and that’s the way to create more revenue, well, once you’ve sold your soul, you’ve sold your soul. You get told what to do – it is no different to any other sport.”

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