March 9, 2019
This is a timely week for the salary cap controversy to erupt because it brings back memories of what happened when England last played Italy at Twickenham. Italy exploited loopholes in the law book – to great uproar from, among others, Eddie Jones – and is finding ways around the salary cap, as Saracens are alleged to have done through business tie-ups, really that different? It is not illegal, but is it immoral? World Rugby amended the relevant law after Italy’s no-ruck tactic to end the argument on that point whereas all these grey areas around the salary cap remain.
I was aware of clubs effectively breaking the salary cap when I was playing. At end-of-season awards dinners, or testimonials, or when you are in England camps, players would talk openly about how they were getting paid in various ways to circumvent the salary cap. I remember hearing one story about a player being paid in cattle! That is pretty much impossible to police which is the real problem. I applaud Ryan Walkinshaw, the former Gloucester owner, for coming out this week and saying owners would talk about how they had broken the salary cap, but how hard is it to prove?
My experiences are not that much different. I understand that there is a collective desire among Premiership Rugby to promote the game and understand it is wary of the gloss off being taken off it but at the same time it is an injustice to supporters if things are going on that breach the spirit of the rules if not break them entirely.
I look back to when Conor O’Shea left Harlequins. There were a lot of contributing factors to his decision but one of them was most certainly the salary cap. He knew, he didn’t just suspect, he knew, that clubs were effectively breaking it and nothing was being done about it. When there was an investigation for potential breaches of the cap in 2015 he wanted everything out in the open but the inquiry was swept under the carpet to all intents and purposes and that made him furious. The clubs involved were never officially named and, at the end, no one was deemed to have done anything wrong after an out-of-court settlement was agreed. Conor had compiled a squad of mostly English qualified players, and it’s not like we were flying high when he took over. We played an attractive brand of rugby and we got success. Then we started to slide. We knew that we could compete with other clubs in terms of tactics and physicality but the one area we couldn’t compete is the strength of their squads. I knew we were spending up to the salary cap and then I’d look at other squads and think: ‘Hang on a minute, they’re not doing it for charity.’
So what’s the solution? Make everything public. Just get rid of the ambiguity. I have no doubt that the Premiership this season is the best league in the world, it is thriving. On top of that there is the CVC investment which demonstrates the room for growth. I wonder what CVC is thinking at the moment though. The obvious answer is to publish what everyone is getting paid.
Returning to Saracens, firstly let me say that I love so much about what they do. I love Nigel Wray’s passion, his selfless investment in the club and the work they do Monday to Friday in the community – they’ve even set up their own school – and it’s fair to say that if you took a few of their players out of the England team, it would be nowhere near as strong. But the culture and fortunes of the club changed years ago when Saracens recruited a host of overseas players. You look at the generation of players now and you have to say they will have benefited from being mentored by all those seasoned internationals, who arguably might not have been there in the first place. Following the latest allegations, Saracens insist that they have not circumvented the rules regarding the salary cap and that all arrangements were made available to the Premiership. This isn’t an attack on Saracens, but there should be a league-wide look at exactly who is doing what because when sport and business collide there will always be blurred lines.
And it’s only going to get worse. The CVC investment has arrived and we’ve seen Premiership Rugby insist that it will go in infrastructure and you have club owners responding like nodding dogs. And yet, I can’t see how it will not go on wages judging by some of the salaries I’ve heard are being offered for next season. Don’t get me wrong, I want the players to get paid as much as they can, they take a battering every week and it’s a short career so good on them. The problem is that the market is so top heavy at the moment and it’s your club player on £80,000 to £100,000 a year who is losing out. When it comes to contract renewals, they are getting offered half that and the other half is going towards the top earners which in turn is leading to smaller squads. You’re either going to lose out in terms of player burnout or in terms of player quality. That’s a tough balance to figure out and it is what makes having a strong academy so important. That way you will reap the rewards by having long-term success because you simply cannot go to the market for a million-pound player every year and have a successful business model.