Lord Myners had it in one in the introduction to his report on the Premiership’s salary cap. “A lack of transparency,” he wrote, “is an obstacle to the clubs reaching the point at which trust and cooperation are restored.”
He was talking about the relationship between clubs and their supporters but it goes wider than that. The Premiership met this week to discuss cutting the salary cap because of the financial devastation caused by the lockdown, but even though a decision was taken nothing has been announced.
News has leaked out, which is the Premiership’s way. There has been a long media silence from the organisation’s chief executive, Darren Childs. In his first year in charge, Childs lacks the sure-footedness of his predecessor, Mark McCafferty, who was not afraid to front up, as he showed in 2015 when he held a conference call to explain why no action was being taken against a club or clubs who had been investigated for suspected breaches of the cap. He knew he would take a battering for being able to reveal only the obsessive secrecy of his employers but he did not hide.
The Rugby Players’ Association, under pressure from the England and Leicester prop Ellis Genge who is setting up a rival union with greater stress on pay than conditions, on Wednesday issued a strongly worded statement that stressed its opposition to making permanent the temporary 25% pay cuts made in March when the season was suspended.
“From the outset there has been an absolute disregard for the players and values of the game,” said the RPA chairman, Mark Lambert, the Harlequins prop. “This latest situation could have been avoided with a collaborative and transparent [that word again] approach and we now find ourselves heading towards a significant legal dispute unless meaningful and genuine dialogue takes place urgently.”
The RPA had to clamber off the fence with Genge’s plans for his Rugby Players Epoch at an advanced stage. His union will cost more to join than the RPA, one per cent of a player’s salary rather than a flat rate £200, with the bulk of it invested and repaid, and he has no interest in joining forces with Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Football Union, independence rather than interdependence.
RPE’s prospectus calls for an independent review of club accounts and will warn off players from “loss-making entities that do not have viable plans … to meet salary obligations”. In the current climate it means it will not be advising any member to join a side in the Premiership, all of whom will be recording losses in the next financial year and there will be no bailout from the RFU, with the governing body’s priorities lying elsewhere.
Genge’s initiative will not be welcomed by Premiership Rugby, a body whose weaknesses have been exposed by the Saracens salary-cap saga and now the suspension of rugby for three months. Its ownership model has spanned the professional era and spawned secrecy, the very wealthy not partial to accountability nor stirred by the Twitterati.
Owners should step back for the moment and let their chief executives, who deal with figures without being clouded by emotion, plot the way forward. It would help make the Premiership less opaque but the drive for sustainability would also have consequences for players. While their opposition to permanent pay cuts is understandable, the business is shrinking at a time when Britain is predicted to suffer the worst economic damage of any country in the developed world.
Salaries, especially at the top, have been set at a level based not on what a club can afford but the willingness of owners to make good losses at the end of every financial year. Nigel Wray was a prime example at Saracens and while Myners was contemptuous of the club’s investment scheme as a way of dodging the salary cap, saying it rewarded big names rather than the unheralded, those in it either came through the ranks or joined at the start of their senior careers.
Salaries have been dangerously high as a percentage of turnover and hard decisions are having to be made throughout Europe. The RPA is right that it should be consulted every step of the way but the good times will not be rolling for a while. French clubs are cutting down overseas players in the Top 14 and there have been calls for a review of the £10.5m salary cap.
The Pro14 is as challenged. The Irish union has warned it could run out of money in a matter of months while in Wales the inertia of the Welsh government, in contrast to the impatience of its Westminster counterpart, means crowds are unlikely to be welcomed back at sports grounds until some time in the new year.
It is why the talks over a global calendar are crucial. If agreement were reached it would mean the club seasons would not overlap with Test windows. In England there would be no need for the Premiership Cup and the size of squads would therefore be reduced, helping to reduce the wage bill and accommodate a cut in the cap.
Genge’s union talks about working with clubs to ensure player finances “are not impacted like this again” but after the last three months one thing is clear: if there is a second wave of coronavirus and another lockdown, there may be no pay to cut.
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