At a time when the domestic season in Europe should be gathering pace, rugby has ground to a halt. There will be no more matches in England below the Premiership this season, or Wales, the Pro14 has been suspended indefinitely with June’s final in Cardiff cancelled and there is no indication when sport will resume after the government’s crackdown on social gathering.
Players in England and Ireland have agreed to take pay cuts to help their clubs through the crisis and inevitably there are fears some will go to the wall. But there are some in the game at its elite level who are showing a wellspring of optimism.
The Sale owner, Simon Orange, for one, believes Premiership clubs, who have seen their income reduced to a trickle – after losing gate receipts, the ability to hire rooms at their grounds and central funding – will survive.
“We will all get through this,” says Orange, whose investment has helped Sale become one of the leading sides in the Premiership again 15 years after they won the title. “These are difficult times for all businesses in the country, but people who have backed their clubs for years are not suddenly going to walk away and I am confident that even if our season does not resume next month, although we hope it will, we will all stay strong and come through this.”
Professional rugby in Australia is due to resume on 3 April despite the suspension of Super Rugby and the limits there on social gathering. The country’s three professional franchises, along with Western Force, who were severed from the elite game in 2017, will feature in a domestic round-robin competition, playing behind closed doors, although it would take only one player, coach or member of the support staff to test positive for Covid-19 for the project to be abandoned. Still, it remains a model for the elite game in England.
“If that is what it takes here, we want to start however we can,” says Orange, “and we are all of the same mind. I know I am going to have to put more money into Sale to help us overcome this and I will do so, but the shorter the delay in resuming playing, the better for everyone.”
Last year, all the Premiership clubs, plus relegated Newcastle, each received a £12.5m windfall after the private equity company CVC took a 27% stake in the competition. It allowed many to pay off overdrafts and loans as well as investors and, for some, contribute to investment projects, but few have deep pockets and should the shutdown continue through the summer, they face being no better off than they were a year ago while CVC takes more than a quarter of the league’s turnover every year, reducing their income.
“We were not in debt so we have not touched the CVC money,” says Orange. “I am not in a position to say what other clubs have done with their share, but we will be all right.”
The Premiership was suspended until 24 April in the hope it would not spook BT subscribers into cancelling or freezing their deals. While playing behind closed doors would mean a loss of match-day income, it would provide live action at a time when nothing is going on and lead to a resumption in central funding from Premiership Rugby, which makes up for 30% of the turnover on average.
Premiership clubs have responded quickly, collectively agreeing, with the exception of the leaders, Exeter, to cut players’ wages by 25%. Central funding monies have dried up because it is paid on a monthly basis, based on expected income. With the lucrative Premiership final a potential victim of the shutdown and the knockout stages of the Champions Cup likely to be cancelled if the season resumes in a compressed form, revenues will be lower than calculated, adding to the financial pressure on the clubs whose outgoings average nearly £1m a month. Broadcasters and sponsors alike are conscious they are now getting nothing for their investment.
Some clubs needed to make the pay cuts immediately while others had more slack but they united in deciding they were all in it together and needed to make a collective decision. To do otherwise ran the risk that the players in clubs whose financial position was precarious would consider themselves free agents because their contract had been breached and look elsewhere.
Only Exeter demurred, which did not surprise the other 11 as the Chiefs’ chairman, Tony Rowe, has become increasingly detached from the others during the course of the season. Six clubs have confirmed the cuts: Bristol, Wasps, Gloucester, Worcester, Leicester and Saracens with Northampton, London Irish, Bath, Sale and Harlequins expected to follow early next week.
“In line with the actions taken by other Premiership clubs, we are having to make difficult decisions that can help safeguard the stability of our club and the game in these testing times,” said Bath on its website. “We are engaged in ongoing conversations with players and staff, and this will continue into the early part of next week. Tough choices will have to be made, and actions taken. We are quite rightly focused on how we best look after our people and our players, so that when we all emerge from this crisis, which we will, we do so together.”
Bristol are owned by Steve Lansdown, the wealthiest backer in the Premiership, but he wants to make the club pay for itself. “This fast-developing global situation affects all of us,” said the Bears’ chief executive, Mark Tainton. “Without match-day revenue and central funding from Premiership Rugby, the club has had to take some very difficult decisions to ensure its future security. From 1 April, players and staff will receive a deduction in salary during this unprecedented period without competitive rugby.”
These cuts have been in agreement with players, so contracts have not been breached. Reports of a threatened strike are premature, but there is concern about when full payment is resumed – will it be when they report back for training or matches resume? Also will the cuts be made up with players moving elsewhere when their contracts expire at the end of June?
Ireland’s four provinces have agreed to pay players and staff deferments of between 10-50%. The decision will be reviewed and the Irish RFU hopes “to return to full pay, and repay any deferrals, as soon as possible”, banking on something of the season being salvaged in the summer. In Wales, where the four regions are all struggling financially, no decision has been made about pay cuts, but meetings are due to be held next week.
Across the border in England, Newcastle must now wait four weeks to find out if they will be promoted from the Championship, with the RFU convening a panel to work out the finishing positions in the various leagues below the Premiership. “I am not surprised that the season has finished, but I am that the Premiership is still going on,” said Doncaster’s director of rugby, Clive Griffiths. “It is the same virus for them and they get bigger crowds. Some of the RFU’s decisions are baffling and the one word that comes out is money.”