The chaos in the administration and financial management of English club rugby continues to go from bad to worse, with Wasps joining Worcester in administration after the Coventry-based club went under on Monday.
The jungle drums are still beating, and Worcester and Wasps are not the only ones struggling after three years of Covid-19, and too many seasons spent on the red side of the financial ledger before it ever happened. These are hard times at London Irish and Newcastle too.
As Exeter head coach Rob Baxter put it succinctly, “We can’t step away from that, as a rugby business, can we? We can’t run away and go, ‘Everything is exactly the same as it was before [Covid]’. Yes, we do some great stuff on the field but the reality is we are all involved in day-to-day businesses.”
It would be folly indeed to run away from the economic realities of the post-Covid rugby world. The 13 Premiership shareholders carry between them, debt totalling £509m million, including £36m owed in tax.
At the time of their entry into administration, Wasps were supporting a debt of £112m, of which £9.5m was owed to HMRC. Even class-leading Exeter Chiefs support a debt of £13m. The net debt, even after assets are deducted, is a whopping £105m. Only two clubs [Bristol and London Irish] are currently in credit with HMRC.
The wage bill for players at Premiership clubs has risen to a peak of 98 per cent of total revenue, an increase of one-third over the Covid years. The injection of capital by private equity firm CVC has been eaten through in the process, rather than building infrastructure as intended. At the same time, the salary cap is due to rise again by £1.4m in 2024. The list of the ‘unsustainables’ goes on and on.
The problems began well before the pandemic. Compared to the Ligue Nationale de France, which also operates a private ownership model, there are some crucial differences. Firstly, the Premiership has failed to secure more money from its broadcast contracts ever since 2012. The current deal with BT Sport works out at £36.7m per annum, compared to £38m 10 years ago. Compare that to LNR, with its current €114m deal, up from €71m in the previous round of negotiations with Canal+. Jumps in broadcast income have been even higher in the URC, relatively speaking.
The second aspect where France enjoys an advantage is its depth of professional cohesion. Where the Premiership has recently been ring-fenced to include only the top 13 clubs/shareholders without the threat of relegation, there are three leagues composed of 44 professional clubs in France, and the decision-making process always includes 30 clubs from both the Top 14 and the Pro D2. The larger entities embrace and take care of their smaller siblings, and there is both promotion and relegation on offer.
LNR insists that all clubs are debt-free before the domestic season can begin. For example, before the 2018-19 season, net club debt was at a low level of €2.5m per club, with the owner acting as guarantor.
It is also fair to say that growth in the traditionally non-rugby playing areas of the country has been faster and more tangible in the northern areas of France (a line drawn west from Lyon to La Rochelle) than it has been in England. The last LNR ‘strategic plan’ covered the period up until the 2023 World Cup and featured an incentive for ‘wildcard’ clubs situated in the north of the country, while four of the nine stadia at next year’s World Cup will be located in the north.
Fewer clubs mean (theoretically), a greater concentration of home-grown talent and less need for expensive foreign imports. The knock-on effect is increased competitiveness in European tournaments and a more attractive broadcasting product.
Back to the thoughts of chairman Baxter:
“I thought it was madness to go to 13 [clubs]… I would have always said twelve if I am honest with you because that was the structure Exeter grew into and got used to playing in. Now, I would say ten – but for more the reasons the pressure is coming on in all kinds of ways now.
“You have got clashes with Premiership Rugby and international rugby… it is a big frustration, there are a lot of games without international players. It [ten clubs] solves that problem to a degree, and also everyone is aware there is a massive focus at the moment on the number of games people play.
”You start to add it all up, for a calendar that feels right over an extended five, six, seven, eight years in a player’s professional career. When you go a league of ten [clubs] home-and-away, with their international commitments and a cup competition for the guys not involved in internationals, it starts to sound [like] very common sense.
Potentially, a reduction to 10 clubs makes an awful lot of very common sense. Fewer clubs mean (theoretically), a greater concentration of home-grown talent and less need for expensive foreign imports. The knock-on effect is increased competitiveness in European tournaments and a more attractive broadcasting product, with English clubs stacking up better against opponents from France or Ireland. There will also be a greater opportunity for cooperation between the RFU and Premiership Rugby to support the salaries of the top players via dual/central contracts.
The underlying irony is that the Gallagher Premiership is succeeding as well on the field as it is failing away from it. The refereeing is at the cutting edge of the game, with all of Wayne Barnes, Luke Pearce and Matt Carley ranking in the top half-dozen officials globally. There is a clear-cut vision of that perennial bugbear, the breakdown, getting defensive bodies out of the road quickly and allowing fast, decisive outcomes in that area.
The results this season have been spectacular: an average of almost 38 minutes of ball-in-play time, compared to 34 minutes in Super Rugby Pacific; an average of 59 points, and eight tries per game, again slightly ahead of the Southern Hemisphere curve; 22.6 penalties per game awarded in the Premiership compared to 23.2 in Super Rugby. It is probably the first time in living memory that the north has succeeded in providing an equal, or better spectacle to games south of the equator.
One of the features of Premiership encounters over the past two seasons is that they often begin with referees reinforcing the positive breakdown imprint that they want to maintain for the rest of the match. The following examples come from the recent game between Wasps and Northampton Saints:
The referee is Adam Leal, a member of the newer generation of officials in England. Within the first five minutes, Leal has given two penalties which follow the 2020 breakdown guidelines in both letter and spirit: the initial pilfer by Wasps’ number 8 Nizaam Carr is legitimate, but Leal correctly picks out the first offence. The tackler (number 4 Joe Launchbury) has failed to roll out of the tackle zone quickly enough, and impedes the cleanout by Saints number 6 Alex Coles (in the black hat).
The second example is an illustration of the tackler rolling out the wrong way – north-south and straight into the attacking scrum-half rather than east-west, and away from the placement of the ball. The whole thrust of English Premiership refereeing is designed to produce quick ball from the ruck, and it is equally fair to the defence:
The Northampton ball-carrier attempts a second roll on the ground to delay release and prevent a steal by Wasps number 7 Jack Willis, and that is a turnover penalty. It helps establish ball-in-play tempo, with Wasps’ scrum-half Dan Robson immediately taking the tap rather than slowing the game down with a kick to touch.
The new breakdown guidelines implemented before the start of the 2020-2021 season have stimulated a huge upswell in the number of high-quality number 7s in the English game: Sam Underhill at Bath, Tom Curry at Sale, Lewis Ludlam in Northampton, Tommy Reffell at Leicester, Lewis Ludlow at Gloucester and Ben Earl at Saracens.
They were not there before, and their presence can only be explained by the requirement for lightning-quick release on both sides of the ball. The value of the pilferer (on defence) and the link man (on attack) has risen proportionately:
The salient feature of these two pilfers by Jack Willis is the speed at which they occur. There is no prolonged grappling contest, and the contest is resolved within two short seconds by penalty award.
Once you get quick release and faster resolutions at the tackle area, players are forced to play at a speed and intensity which makes defensive structures more difficult to maintain:
The Northampton tackler (Wales number 10 Dan Biggar) rolls out east-west, leaving one-second ball on a plate for Robson at the base. The break follows against a defence which is still in the process of regrouping, and Willis is inevitably up in support of Carr to convert the opportunity into a try.
Jack Willis did not have it all his own way at the death, however:
Carr is bumped off by Saints second row Dave Ribbans and that means Willis cannot find a toehold in the tackle area. The domino effect of a lightning-quick release is space for Courtnall Skosan to score in the right corner. Northampton Saints won a game they probably should have lost, by 40 points to 36.
While English professional rugby is in a state of disintegration off the pitch, it is in rude health on it. The 13-club model no longer appears sustainable, and probably it never was. The league may need to take Rob Baxter’s advice and reduce to 10 professional entities, taking a step back in order to move forward. Establishing more cohesive, harmonious relations with the second-tier Championship, pushing the broadcast marketability of the game in England, and involving the RFU in the contracting of the top players, would all help restore faith and confidence at a time when both are in short supply.
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