Salary cap restricting and benefiting English clubs

Recently, I feel pride in one’s country has come in for some sort of liberal scrutiny, the use of the St Georges flag, the spitfire and the traditional oafish skinhead has been adopted by a right minority and is now somewhat stigmatised to show any type of pride in this bizarre yet beautiful nation of ours. This is exactly why I place such importance on my national team. It is the opportunity for me to dress up as a somewhat lightweight knight of St George, with my fellow band of brothers (equally unfit to adorn any type of amour) and swing very low.

I care a great deal about the English team. Therefore I care about the standard of the premiership, the pool from which we pick our representatives at an international level and what I will hopefully argue- provide the platform for our future warriors.

I have seen endless articles this season, panicking, bemoaning our Premiership in comparison to the French league. After the quarter finals of the Heineken Cup, Mark McCall similarly spoke out about his lack of spending power in comparison to the French clubs.

My fear, is that rugby, with the looming presence of an ever increasing commercial pressure, will adopt all that is wrong with football and in particular the Premiership, with an average of only around 30% of English players, extravagant wages and a disconnection from the fans. Professionalism requires a balance, that balance has sailed off into the distance a long time ago with football, lets not let that happen with rugby.

The wage cap has positives; I believe we are seeing a resurgent England team, packed full of youngsters, due to the opportunities afforded to them by the wage cap. Instead of packing a team full of superstars clubs are investing because of necessity, in young English talent. I’ll use two (though there are more) examples to explain my case, Harlequins and Gloucester. Two teams that are playing an exciting brand of rugby that has an English motor powering it forward, now that can only be a positive thing for the future of English rugby!

I had the misfortune of watching Harlequins get thrashed by Toulon this weekend, obviously the two teams had different ambitions in the actual game, with Quins mind on the premiership title and Toulon desperate to dust out the trophy cabinet. But as I watched Johnny Wilkinson spilt the posts in half with each penalty, I couldn’t help but think… well what’s this doing for French rugby? A team full of international superstars, but very few Frenchmen. I believe the consequences of flash your cash attitude in French rugby will start to become more and more transparent with each passing year, whilst young French talent rots on the side-lines.

I’m sure that this debate will continue, and I feel like it is currently simmering ready to boil over. It is in everybody’s interest to even the playing field within our premiership, clubs need to be more transparent in their financial dealings, but the RFU also needs to hear the concerns of the wealthier clubs, as it’s essential to keep our sport investable. But I can’t help but think, in spite of the recent absence of English teams in the latter stages of the Heineken cup, the future crop of players being developed will be far more superior to that on offer from other big money leagues.

by James Perowne

32 thoughts on “Salary cap restricting and benefiting English clubs

  1. Points very well made. As a season ticket holder at Harlequins I have veryuch enjoyed the brand of rugby we have played this year and even if we end up with no trophies it’s the way rugby should be played and England will benefit from the English contingent over the coming years. I also agree that Saracens seem to have there own budget anyway and because of this how did we enjoy beating them last weekend !!!

    1. Probably as much as we enjoyed beating you at Twickenham. Lol. I must admit I don’t know how we manage our salary cap with the amount of big names we have. But as the last two weekends have shown, if you’re missing a couple of those players in the same position it can make a difference to the whole team.

  2. I think that there is a balance to be had.

    On the one hand, I thoroughly agree that the salary cap gives younger players a chance to play when otherwise they might not.

    On the other, having quality internationals to learn from is good for younger players and we wouldn’t want all the top players going abroad.

    Also the only pick players playing in the Premiership plan might be a lost cause if everyone follows the money. Personally I think that this requirement is a load of old bunkum. If a player is good enough and English, he ought to be playing in the England team. I think that at present Steffon Armitage seems to be someone highlighting this problem, but what is it going to be like in a couple of years time if we end up following what is happening in Wales?

    1. One of the problems with foreighn based players is that they (sometimes) don’t get released in time for all the training camps. The RFU cant have the same relationship it has with English clubs with the rest of Europe.

      Its also difficult for Lancaster to monitor players at so many clubs. If there were good english players at 5/6 french/celtic clubs then it would mean he would have to analyse that many more games every week.

      Also their needs to be incentive to keep English players in England for the good of the clubs. NZ need to keep it exclussive for NZ based players because playing for the All Blacks is the only incentive they have they can’t compete on wages.

      However the English stance isn’t a ‘ban’ on players based abroad i think its worded ‘special circumstances’ (doesn’t really mean anything so Lancaster can always pick abroad based players). He picked Palmer this 6N, what was special about those circumstances? We had loads of 2nd rows available from the prem. So its a detterent to moving abroad not a brick wall. I dont think this policy will stop Armitage getting picked.

      1. I appreciate the release problems and it might be something to make clear to players moving abroad (although mainly we mean France) that they need to get something in their contract at the start. It’s not as if the main International dates are any different for the northern Hemisphere players.

        I hope Armitage does go to SA as although I’ve never been a great supporter of his, he does appear to be playing his socks off at present, and he’s probably the best openside we’ve got at the mo. We’ll see if the playing abroad card stops him going.

  3. don’t think england will ever have the problems of wales as u like club rugby wales don’t care about it very small following thats why cuthbert is on 100,000 a year which is very small even for a rugby salary. the iru should follow the irish model control the wages and limit the foreigners 5 good ones per team is much better than 10 journey men.

  4. Interesting comment about Wilkinson’s effect on French rugby, given their current debacle in the kicking department..!

    I know Owen Farrell isn’t exactly a product of grassroots club rugby (not Union anyway), but while Sarries have their faults, but they have stuck by him, and hopefully solved England’ similar problems in that position.

  5. Rick, Cuthbert is on £5000 a year at Cardiff and gets £19000 from his sevens contract with the WRU! Although according to the article I read he will make £85000 from appearances and bonus at the 6N.

    On the salary cap issue, you have a very delicate balance. The top clubs want to spend to compete which leaves the danger of the bottom clubs (financially speaking) potentially over stretching themselves to stay in the Prem and compete at the top table. The salary cap is first and foremost a liquidation stopper which I think is crucial if we are to stop rugby clubs going the way of football clubs. How you ‘upgrade’ the poorer clubs so you are then in a position to extend the salary cap is a very difficult question. I suggest perhaps the bottom line is work with what you can afford. Its far to easy in sport for teams to buy success (Man City and Chelsea for example) If you invest in ‘coaching’ and improving your players you should be able to compete. And for me this isn’t just about improving your young English talent. It’s about coaching all the players on your books to be better. Case in point would be no one ever coached Mike Tindall to pass in front of the man running on to the ball!!!! On the Heineken cup issue It may also be useful for Saracens to recognise kick and chase has never won the Heineken Cup and never will!

  6. One thing is for sure, Exeter have proved you just need players who want to play for the team, and each other. They are a team who just want to play rugby, irrespective of who is in the team.

  7. Out of interest, does anyone know how many clubs spend up to the limit of the cap?

    I think the discussion about the cap itself is just a symptom, the cause being wage inflation. When the capital city of a rugby country (Cardiff) can’t sustain a viable professional club which can’t afford to pay it’s home grown stars the “market rate” you have to take note. Some Europe wide rules on fiscal responsibility (entry criteria for European competitions) would be a welcome introduction to help the financial sustainability of the game. Costs increasing faster than revenue is not the way forward. I wouldn’t be adverse to stopping promotion/relegation or moving to franchises to give clubs more certainty to build their businesses.

    1. Not sure the franchise system has worked in NZ or Wales.

      Also dead against stopping promotion/relegation – where would Exeter be now. It gives every club an aspiration and keeps those at top table working hard to stay there. Ultimately it will keep clubs competitive without lapsing into a false sense of security which can allow them to get by with poor business (because that’s what they are) practices. I don’t think that is good for anyone.

      1. Why do you say it hasn’t worked in NZ? 10 wins and 7 runners up out of 16 comps doesn’t seem a disaster (it wasn’t the super rugby Highlander’s franchise that went bust).

        I would be interested in a Welsh perspective on whether the franchises have been a good or bad thing. Financial difficulties through crazy wage inflation don’t make it the wrong answer.

        The point really is that wage inflation has changed the landscape. Yes our top clubs could afford to spend more without being reckless, but I’m not sure the economics will continue to support 12 professional clubs in a competetive league.

        1. Welsh perspective? 3 Grand Slams since we went regional. That is the be all and end all of Welsh rugby so it has been successful. There is no doubt that concentrating the talent, the regional academy system and the focus on Wales with player release has worked wonders for us.

          Regional rugby itself is flawed – Scarlets works well as they are simply Llanelli. Cardiff doesn’t work as it needs the valleys to get behind it and they never will while the name Cardiff remains. Newport have a similar though lesser problem.

          There is still too much reliance on and hence power lying with the rich benefactors, so Cardiff’s fortunes go up and down with Peter Pies whims. There are also individual issues – moving to out of town stadiums before building loyalties and quality teams (Cardiff and Ospreys), playing way below your self set expectations (Ospreys), crap coaching (Cardiff and Ospreys).

          Also the number of actual Wales matches plays a factor – you can see Wales play at home now ~10 times in some years? At 70 quid a pop that’s as much as anyone can afford to spend on rugby – as Eddie Butler put it, you can practically support Wales now as if they are a club side given the num of games they play. So a lot of people just support Wales and their local village clubs, the regions then exist in a no mans land.

          1. I might have got the wrong end of the stick in relation to the Highlanders as I had thought that it was the franchise, but in the Welsh case as brighty has far more intelligently put it than I could, I was aware that the franchises weren’t getting the level of support as it was a mix up in the fan base.

            Can you imagine a “Severn Bridge” franchise incorporating Bath, Gloucester and Bristol. I wouldn’t know whether to love it or hate it but would probably just leave it in the end, as I would have no affiliation with it whether it played at Kingsholm or not.

            I think in a broad generalising and probably incorrect way I was applying the same logic to NZ and franchises going bust being the proof of this.

  8. Firstly, the salary cap had nothing to do with Saracens losing.

    Exeter should have beaten Stade. They were denied a clear penalty under the posts around 75 mins by poor officiating.

    Whenever our teams go out we seem to blame the salary cap. Quins and Gloucester hold big wins against Toulouse. That group was close enough that both of those teams could have gone through. Leicester beat both Ulster and Clermont.

    The premiership clubs aren’t inferior by any stretch of the imagination, but both the English and the French clubs are at a disadvantage to the Pro12 regions. The ability to rest players when you want knowing you’re going to be in the H-Cup next year is a huge benefit, whilst the English and French teams battle it out throughout the season.

    There does however need to be an overhaul. Perhaps making sure that players that are in H-Cup squads have played a minimum number of domestic games, or thinning the competition to 12 Teams and having no set number from each nation, but only the top 4 of each major league qualify.

    1. Spot on. Hilarious to see all the tripe from some English clubs about this being a pure financial issue. Saracens are using it to paper over fact that it was their limited gameplan and the lack of skill it has bred in their players that caused them to lose.

      How can someone have the balls to say it is all about the cap (I am talking about the Saracens owner) when he must surely have noticed that Edinburgh beat Toulouse and Ulster beat Munster? Two matches where the moneybags teams came second.

      1. I should say “spot on” for the first half of your email Andy. The pro12 argument is tired and untrue. In the early part of this century, with England dominating club and country rugby we were constantly told that the batttle hardening of the English system was the reason for this. Now English teams are no longer the leading lights it’s funny to see the reasons always looked for outside English rugby – it’s the salary cap, or the weak rugby played in the Pro12, or the ELVs, or something else. English teams still play the game in the same way they did in the noughties – power and phases. Other teams, most notably Irish regions and the Welsh national side, have moved to a different level and that’s the difference now. English sides need to get better, not blame things outside themselves. Look at how Quins have torn through most other Prem sides this year. That’s the way to win. A few more seasons of that and they’ll learn how to marry it with strength and pragmatism, much as it took Leinster, Munster, Wales and now even Edinburgh some time to learn it.

        1. Some times there’s no obvious answer. Munster benefitted from having one of the greatest outhalves to play the game – the all time top points scorer in the Heineken cup, Ronan O’Gara. They’re fading a bit now, although I still expect them to be a threat. Leinster have a dynamite coaching staff – mostly SH coaches if not all – which is clearly reflected in their style of play. They also benefit from having several national side players at the top of their game and of course Mr. O’Driscoll. It’s a pendulum I think.

          English fans are very hard on themselves if they don’t win. It’s understandable, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but you can’t always win.

    2. There has been a power shift as a result of French spending power, this is most evident in the Amlin. English clubs used to dominate this competition (not just in competition wins, but number of pool winners), which I always took as a good indicator of the strength in depth of the English club game.

      I don’t think Sarries lost because of a salary cap. I don’t think rich benefactors driving wage inflation through the roof is good for the sustainability of the game either.

      1. I cannot see that the shift is down to spending power? Cardiff Blues won the competition in Toulon a few seasons ago. How come spending power is the reason for French Amlin dominance but the Heineken Cup semis are not dominated by the biggest spenders?

        England are suffering for rugby reasons and I am afraid it starts to come across as hubris to present as a fact that it’s purely down to money and not simply the quality of rugby.

        This argument can be punctured on so many ways … here are some interesting points I found on some blogs..

        Pool 1: Northampton 3rd. No French club above them;
        Pool 2: London Irish 3rd. No French club above them;
        Pool 3: Bath 3rd. No French club above them;
        Pool 4: Leicester 3rd. One French club and one Irish club above them;
        Pool 5: Saracens top the group;
        Pool 6: Harlequins 2nd, Gloucester 3rd. Toulouse top the group and in their following game get knocked out by cash-strapped Edinburgh.

        Harlequins lost to Connacht

        Seriously, this constant (every year and English team fails to make the final we hear the same thing) whinging that English teams are at a disadvantage (either financially or through the other reasons I have mentioned) has to stop or they will never get any better. Saracens are a limited side and got found out. Northampton thought their group was in the bag and lost it at home as they assumed the Scarlets would be easy pickings.

        Last year Northampton reached the final – if it’s all down to money how was it even possible?

        This just goes round and round … it’s an absurd argument.

        1. You are missing the point. I am making a point about the sustainability of the professional game. Clubs who spend far more than they make because of rich benefactors is not good for the European game (for both intra and inter country competition). We need financial stability for the professional game to continue to prosper. Top Welsh internationals being able to leave a region and double their salary across the channel is not good.

          This has nothing to do with having less money to spend being some invalid excuse for playing less innovative, intelligent and skillful rugby. It is not a whinge about not winning as much anymore. Nor do I think the Pro12 is some some second rate competition that means they are Fresh for H cup rugby, or any other excuse.

          The only fact we have to face is rugby players cost far more than they did a few years ago (unless you are called Cuthbert), rugby revenues are not keeping pace. The Blues won’t be the last to crack.

          1. I’m not missing the point as I am responding to what ou are saying rather than what you may think you mean. You said “there has been a power shift as a result of French spending power”; I disagree with and was rebutting that assertion.

  9. The whole Pro12 thing is over-exaggerated. The Pro12 is still a competitive competition with teams wanting to qualify for the knock-out stages.

  10. The salary cap thing seems largely to be all smoke and mirrors – one bad year does not mean that there is a crisis in English rugby. Remember we had an English finalist last year.

    However I would disagree with those that doubt the Premiership v. Pro12 argument. Look at a team like Edinburgh – at this stage in the season I they are 11th out of 12, with something like 5 wins out of 19 games played. There must have come a point in the season where they decided that their hopes for topping the Pro12 were gone, so decided instead to focus on the Heineken Cup. Contrast this with a side like Gloucester, who are also mathematically out of the running to win their own league, but must still go at it hammer and tongs for the rest of the season to fend off Sale and Bath for a place in the Heineken Cup next year. All three of these teams have better league win/loss records than Edinburgh this season, yet which team is in the HC semi finals? By all rights Edinburgh should not even qualify for next season’s tournaments so to say they deserve to be there more than Gloucester or Bath is laughable, when they’ve had nothing to focus on for most of the season except the Heineken Cup.

    That said, English rugby does have a tendency to apportion blame for its problems elsewhere, rather than looking inwards. Brighty made a good point that the English game has not moved on much when others have – perhaps we should look at the intellectual development of our game instead?

    All of this needs to be looked at in balance – you get the sense that clubs like Northampton, Leicester, and Harlequins would love to develop larger squads of English players but don’t have the cash to do so – perhaps an increase in the salary cap with the proviso that the cash is to be used to develop English players, combined with strict rules about the number of foreign players allowed in the league.

    1. I disagree with the reasoning you have deduced from the facts though. Yes, Pro 12 teams have done better in the HC and some of those teams that have done well are lower in their respective leagues than English teams.

      So another reading of the facts could be that the Pro 12 is harder/better. In Pro 12 v English matches this year the Pro 12 team has come out on top more often. The Pro 12 teams make up 3 of this years finalists. So week in/out Edin have to compete with Munster/Leinster/Cardiff/Ulster, all QFs, so lose more games in their leagues… Taking this further would then remove the argument that they do not deserve to qualify – we could turn this around and say (as they do in the Champions League for example) that a league that consistently fails to produce significant representation in the final rounds does not deserve as many places as England gets…

      My point is that I think this is all subjective whereas your argument seems to be trying to say it is an objective fact that the Pro 12 benefits those teams in terms of the HC. I disagree hence my argument deriving a different conclusion from the same facts. I’ll admit I’ve delib used some emotive language in their (“better”) but I’m trying to get across how annoying it can be to hear people decry the quality of a league that their teams are not in. It’s nearly as bad as the “this was a poor 6 nations” argument whenever France/Eng don’t win it…

      For your last point isn’t this effectively already in play – they get money for players in the EPS and they can spend that without it being counted as part of their salary for cap checking?

      1. To the last point yes and no – you get money for the EPS (is it 30 grand on top of the salary cap for each player in the EPS?) but that doesn’t include all English qualified players, only those in the EPS. My point was to expand the salary cap (not dramatically, and certainly not to a French level) in order to deepen squads, while restricting the amount of foreign players (I believe there already is some kind of restriction in place?). This could enable more space in the squad for young English players who may one day become EPS members.

        To the point about the Pro12 I stick by my argument – once Edinburgh decided they could not win the league (fairly early on I should think looking at their rankings throughout the season) it would be silly to put all their resources into fighting that league when it wouldn’t matter if they place 12th or 5th as there is no relegation and they are already guaranteed to qualify for the HC. Why not forget about the league and go all out on the Heineken Cup? This means they can rotate their squad more effectively throughout the league and end up with A) a greater number of young players with 1st team experience and B) less fatigued players.

        1. How do you know what Edinburgh decided to do and when they decided to do it? You cannot possibly know that, you are making wrong assumptions to further your argument. Edinburgh play in a tough league. They don’t have the budget to rest loads of players every week and further they are decimated by international call ups. Edinburgh are a good team as their results against non Pro 12 teams show. It’s just hard for them that the top end of the Pro 12 contains the best teams in Europe.

  11. I think the franchise argument is fascinating. I believe the only reason it works in NZ is because the public just live rugby so will watch it on tv. The NPC is probably better supported than the Super comp funnily enough because that’s smaller ‘local’ teams with a loyal following. The crowds are actually fairly poor for large parts of the NZ Super XV hence the change to have more derbies and create more interest! I think the fact they have won the ‘Super’ competition is down to better players not necessarily the ‘franchise’ system! Possibly the same in Wales although I think the welsh academies are getting it right. Look at the English ‘franchises’ Wasps, London Irish, Saracens. They all have either previously struggled or are struggling to find their place. Irish seemed to have this sorted now as they are effectively a Reading based club. Wasps are in limbo because where are you from if you support Wasps? Certainly not London! Sarries without the money men are in the same boat! Look at the historically strong/well supported sides Bath, Gloucester, Leicester, Northampton. They are all a town or city so fans identify with it. Franchises in small countries don’t work.

  12. I’m glad that it seems like the consensus on here is that it is non-sensical to equate a lack of representation in European semi-finals (for one season) to a lower salary cap. French teams go bust when their sugar-daddies get bored. Good players/squads come in waves and take time to develop. Matches can be won or lost by a single decision/missed opportunity.

    I would much rather have stable clubs, an even(ish) playing field, relegation/promotion. English clubs are breaking records for attendances – the marketing of the game is going in the right direction.

    To answer one of Phil’s points – i am a Wasps fan and from Surrey. As a generalisation I always got the impression that North Londoners went for Saracens then Quins, Wasps and Irish fought it out for anyone South of the river and into the surrounding counties. I reckon that recently Quins have attracted the most new fans. I started supporting Wasps in 1998 when they had a promotion offering 20 quid season tickets to under-16’s and were playing at Loftus Road (and had just won the league!). It was a clever marketing ploy as all my mates signed up so of course our Dads signed up to the full-priced season tickets and we’ve all supported them since!

  13. p.s. If Wasps are bought by some comic book millionaire or an oil baron they should instantly scrap the salary cap.

  14. The concerns about Toulon’s approach having an adverse effect upon the French national team have already been addressed. There is a gradually increasing threshold for the minimum number of French-qualified players in a Pro-14 squad.

    Before long, Toulon will be supplying as many players to the French team as Sarries do to the English ;)

  15. If anything the current French set up is already having an impact on the national team.

    They very rarely have the same players 1-15 taking to the field consistently as you have a new top performing player in each position almost every week.

    Players come, earn a couple of caps and then are gone again never to be seen again on the international stage. This leads to inconsistency and we all know that the French are very far from consistent.

    Also French Club rugby is massive with huge crowds, lot’s of money, passion and flair. It’s a very attractive league and you can start to see the similarities between the players in the league and the Premier League in football, with players prefering to play for their club than represent their country.

    It is vital English rugby does not become like this, and to be honest I dont really ever see it realisticaly happening so everyone take their fingers away from their panic buttons!

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