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24 Feb 2024, Edition - 3147, Saturday

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Premiership’s cash injection could hit fans, players and lower-tier clubs

The Guardian


“Money love can help you on, heal you and sustain you, but never turn your back upon, how money love it can change you.” So sang Brian Protheroe in 1974 and money has certainly changed rugby union in the last 24 years.

As the 12 Premiership clubs, along with London Irish, plot how to spend the £200m they have received from a private investment company, which largely involves acting as a cartel and shutting out aspirants to the top flight, the Welsh Rugby Union is this week in talks with its four regions about finding for next season, part of a new agreement called Project Reset.

Three of the regions, the Scarlets, Ospreys and Cardiff Blues, this season get £6.8m from central funds with the Dragons, which is owned by the Union, receiving £6m. One of the ideas that will be discussed by a board made up of the governing body, the regions and two independent members, is downgrading at least one of the four to a development team on reduced funding.

The Dragons are the most likely victim despite – or perhaps because of – the WRU’s ownership, attracting the lowest average crowd of the modestly supported quartet and rarely contesting for a place in the European Champions Cup. Wales’s wait to provide a winner for that tournament will go into next season with the Scarlets and the Blues among this season’s also-rans.

When Wales went regional in 2003, it was because the WRU felt that having nine professional clubs meant that talent was spread too thinly. Now there is a belief that four is too many and the game’s finances mean that the tier that underpins the regions, the Welsh Premiership, provides a rickety bridge between the amateur and professional games because it is underfunded.

It is the same in England with the financial gulf between the Premiership and the Championship now a chasm that will only get wider. The CVC money provides an opportunity for the top flight to invest in the level below, not through altruism but to help provide a better competition for players to emerge from.

It won’t happen and if Premiership clubs get their way over ringfencing it will be irreversible. They have talked about relegation being suspended for four years and then reviewed, but without considerable investment the Championship will atrophy and become more amateur than semi-professional. For all the top sides like to talk about France when it comes to the playing budgets and recruitment of top players, they have less to say about how relegation is enshrined there and the second division properly financed so that coming up is more of a step than a leap.

The CVC money, we are told, will not be used to stoke wage inflation. That appears to be fanciful. The players affected will be those on the fringe of a squad, earning around £50,000, who will make way for academy players. One head coach lamented recently that a player of his who was on £300,000 was offered a 20% increase which was trumped by a rival who offered to almost double his salary. The lesson of football in the Premier League era is that no matter how much a club’s turnover increases, fans will always be squeezed. There is never enough money.

Just as Wales are talking about the future, so should England. The partnership with CVC has emboldened the clubs, providing them with a war chest should they find themselves in conflict with the RFU and potentially heading for the courts. They need to be careful because it is hard to see how CVC can quickly recoup its investment and start to make a lavish profit from a club tournament which, for all the advances it has made, has limited appeal.

Is it using the Premiership as a stalking horse with its eyes on Test rugby when all the home unions, the RFU included, are facing financial challenges? The tweak to the global calendar that will come into play next season will have little impact because, apart from allowing the Super Rugby tournament to be played in one block, tournaments will still overlap and players will remain overburdened.

The length of the season is increasing because of money: the longer it lasts, the greater the earning potential for clubs. In a week when yet another player has retired early because of injury – Ben John at the age of 27 – the Wales full-back Leigh Halfpenny will miss the start of the Six Nations as he struggles to shake off the symptoms of his latest concussion.

Given the increasingly attritional nature of the sport and the short close season, a return to the amateur calendar – when the game shut down between the end of April and the beginning of September – would help, but there is no chance of that happening. Money again.

Club owners have long recognised that the game’s regulations, which were drawn up in amateur times, impede their ambition, not least the one regarding automatic release of players for international matches in designated windows. Their options are limited: there has been talk of a breakaway, but who with? French clubs would have to break the law there to join in and teams in the other countries are yoked to their unions.

The game would shrink when it needs to expand. Clubs that have overreached themselves in recent years by spending what they did not have are counting the cost. London Welsh crashed to the bottom of the English league system, following in the trail of their neighbours London Scottish and Richmond, Rotherham nearly went after their Premiership experiences and Neath face another winding-up order over an unpaid tax bill.

As Protheroe continued: “Money love will fill your head, feed you and obey you. But very softly you must tread or in the ground she will lay you.”

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