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The uncomfortable rugby truth exposed by the global pandemic

By Owain Jones
(Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images)

Rugby has always been inclined to puff out its chest and tell you just how much it’s growing. In a report by Nielsen Sports in 2018, World Rugby proudly announced it had 793m followers worldwide and 338m fans worldwide. Astounding numbers that show its rapacious ambition. Rugby continues to chase lucrative markets.


The golden goose, of course, has always been America, but it’s been a stubborn mistress. Premiership Rugby’s success in staging games there was more Robbie Williams-tribute band than coast-to-coast Beatles US domination, and despite global initiatives in the far-flung corners of Brazil, Sri Lanka, China and Iran, as the full magnitude of the Coronavirus crisis took hold, rugby’s chutzpah has visibly shrunk.

WATCH: Jim Hamilton sat down with Saracens and England player, Billy Vunipola on today’s episode of “The Lockdown”.

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Despite promises of untold largesse coming into the game, with the well-documented, giant carrot-sized pot of lucre from CVC being pumped like a V12 aortic valve around the game, within days of the game being cancelled, rugby’s administrators were already hitting the panic button.

Widespread cuts in salaries within the Premiership, deferred payments within the IRFU, the WRU saying efficiencies were currently being debated, while down South, the suspension of the Super Rugby and Top League season in Japan has put already stretched franchises into dire straits.

It’s not just the professional bodies either. The pandemic has seen a windfall of payments down the rugby pyramid, with the home unions cupping their ears promising emergency hand-outs to the grassroots game. Indeed, bystanders have been amazed at how quickly rugby has descended into penury. As a relatively fledgling professional sport, (25 years, compared to 132 with football, and 57 with cricket), it’s hard not to surmise that rugby, financially, feels like it’s built on sand.

As a sporting ecosystem, it was already fragile. Like all sports, it relies on society and its fans to give it oxygen. The Premiership clubs were running at a loss to the tune of £30m-a-year, so the decision to take £230m of investment from private equity in December 2018, was, in truth, never a choice; it was a necessity borne by desperation, and it was no different with the Pro14 and its £120m cash injection from CVC. The game is running to a standstill.


Stakeholders will always pine for a bigger broadcast deal, or rich benefactor to show philanthropic leanings, but with no rugby everything grinds to a halt pretty bloody quickly. On a domestic level, rugby simply can’t produce enough revenue through gate receipts and matchday hospitality. In a contradiction to football where the club game dominates, rugby is still in thrall to the international game. The fact CVC has decided to invest suggests they see a sport that is ripe for growth, similar to football in the early Nineties, before the Premier League explosion, but rugby’s problem is at domestic level. It simply doesn’t have football’s mass appeal. Crowds of 8,164 (Pro14), 13,881 (Top 14) and 14,083 (Premiership Rugby), across the European leagues, place its popularity between a League One and Championship side. Ask many players which means more; representing their club or country on the Test stage and most will plump for the latter.

The warning signs of the explosive growth of Covid-19 came into rugby’s rear-view mirror when Japan and the Top League was postponed on February 27. That’s when agents, administrators, players and fans knew the ripple effect would be coming to Europe at some point. By March 14 and the cancelling of the final Six Nations game, Wales v Scotland, rugby’s handbrake had been fully yanked up, leaving numerous questions. Is the season going to get finished? If it doesn’t get finished, what happens to promoted and relegated sides? The cracks in the rugby family are already showing with Newcastle Falcons and Ealing Trailfinders crossing swords in the media this weekend.

Then there’s the pawns; the players. While the likes of superstars Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, Finn Russell and Jonny Sexton are unlikely to go hungry, the situation for your mid-ranking professionals and the reams of academy players are far more parlous.

This is where the granular detail of players contracts come into play.

Those players switching clubs, or searching for new clubs, will see their contracts ending on June 30. So what happens if the Premiership slips over into July? Let’s take a hypothetical situation. What would happen if Bristol, now in third, and Harlequins, with a late surge, meet in the semi-final play-offs, can Kyle Sinckler, who has agreed to play for the Bears next season, play for Quins? Employment law says you can’t force him to play, yet he is tied from playing for Bristol Bears because of the registration deadline has ended (the Premiership has a deadline, normally the 31st of March, while the Pro14 has already passed, on March 16). Sinckler would more than likely be forced to stay in his tracksuit because a serious injury could invalidate his lucrative move. These are complex regulatory issues that may need untangling.

Mbanda front line coronavirus story
(Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)

The next legal quagmire is the cutting of salaries. The average Premiership Rugby player earns around £150,000. In the cash-strapped Championship players are lucky to earn North of £25,000 on average a year so while every Premiership Club has been at pains to suggest players have dealt with the loss of income in a calm and magnanimous way, there are storm clouds ahead as futures are decided. While some of next year’s recruitment is nailed down, there will be players, easily good enough for one final hurrah, who maybe overlooked when a DoR presents his credentials to club boards simply because of the gaping hole in cash reserves.

As for the 25 per cent pay cuts, any employment lawyer could argue that that’s a fundamental breach of contract. Not only that, players could claim constructive unfair dismissal and walk out on the contract. Further down the line, an aggrieved player could probably make an argument for unlawful deduction of wages. The problem for players is where they would go? The fact that everyone is in the same situation, means the majority will grit their teeth and sit tight.

The geographic merry-go-round of players has also caused logistical problems. High-profile players like Duane Vermeulen has complained about being stranded in Japan when desperate to return to South Africa and he will not be alone. In France, Thomas Lombard, Sporting Director of Stade Français stated that foreign nations should not leave France in case their clubs needed them to play and to avoid issues around quarantine on returning. All clubs throughout Europe have urged players to keep fit with a playing return this season eagerly anticipated, more in hope than expectation.

South Africa scrum
Duane Vermeulen prepares for a scrum during South Africa’s win over England in Yokohama (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

As silver linings have been sought, there is nevertheless a concern for the players’ mental health.

It is one thing to be told you have six weeks to rest and recuperate with an Instagram-friendly break around the world and the chance to unwind with a few beers but for these huge, socially gregarious men, being cooped up at home for weeks on end with only a Wattbike for company is something that has to be managed. A support network will be key, especially with the financial concerns looming.

Of course, rugby players have shown their altruistic side. Among the more notable, Wales star Rob Evans has offered to do food drop-offs for pensioners, Jamie Roberts has let his house to NHS staff and Tim Visser has offered to help out elderly neighbours but what is unequivocal is that rugby is reliant on having bums on seats. Northampton have calculated that losing four home games will see them £1.6m down – those sorts of figures are impossible to paper over in end-of-season accounts.

The next body blow to the sport could in the form of a cut to their broadcast revenue. What if BT Sport has a clawback provision? There are up to 80 televised games a season. With nine rounds yet to be played, you would not blame a broadcaster for asking for the remainder of the monies back, especially with subscribers demanding a pause on their subscription fees. Any savvy commercial rights lawyer would have implemented something of that manner when signing a six-year deal for around £200m, as BT Sport did in 2015. The same will surely apply to the Top 14 and the enormous Canal+ deal.

You can now see why Darren Childs, Premiership Rugby’s CEO, has brazenly stated that he wants rugby to be the first sport back on TV and there has even been suggestions of two games a week to finish before the end-of June deadline. The domino effect exacerbated by Coronavirus has sent rugby down a series of rabbit holes.

Hogg Scotland
Hogg demonstrates the coronavirus elbow bump PA

Further down the chain, you have major title sponsors like Guinness and HSBC, who will be deliberating how to recoup some cash as a financial crisis looms and more modest club sponsors will also be scrambling. Some have already hit the skids like FlyBe at Exeter, and more will surely follow. Attracting new sponsors in for 2020-21 is about to get even harder.

It’s a cashflow problem for rugby and highlights that in these going concerns, no-one runs with more than 3-6 months in the kitty. The next big decisions come in July. You could assuage that it will be more important to Premiership Rugby to conclude the season than the Pro14 which is union run. The Celtic unions, on the contrary, may decide that the broadcasting of summer Test games to New Zealand and Japan (Wales), Australia (Ireland) and South Africa (Scotland) is the financial priority to finishing the Pro14 season, which has already had its final in Cardiff cancelled, and that’s not even mentioning the pause to European rugby, which has had its knockout stages indefinitely.

Let’s be clear, the worldwide the ramifications of Covid-19 are being felt in a way that questions our way of life, but the ramifications for the game we love could be profound. Like every other member of society, it’s time to lockdown, work together and hope for the best outcome.


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