Premiership clubs are likely to face claims of unlawful deduction of wages amid growing player unrest at the blanket 25% pay cuts imposed. It is understood there is a sense of frustration at a number of clubs, particularly from players whose contracts expire in the summer, and action is expected to be taken.
On Wednesday, London Irish became the latest club to confirm they had implemented the reduction in wages with the Premiership suspended until 24 April owing to coronavirus. A across the league, some players have been left dismayed by the measures taken. The cuts cannot be legally enforced unless players agree but there is a sense for some that they are being railroaded. As a result, challenges are being considered with one well-placed source believing clubs will end up dealing with claims for unlawful deduction of wages.
There is also confusion among players as to when full pay will be reinstated given they will have to return to training to prepare for any resumption of the season. It is understood some clubs do not intend to restore full wages until revenues have returned to a certain level, raising concerns as to what happens if matches are played behind closed doors, which is one of the options being considered by Premiership Rugby.
It is also understood some clubs are set to implement the cuts on this month’s pay while there is anger that individual circumstances have not been taken into account given the disparity in wages across squads. For example, Jack Nowell has publicly stated he would be happy to take a pay cut but he is one of Exeter’s top earners and also receives around £25,000 for each England appearance.
At the other end of the spectrum, some players whose contracts expire in the summer have had offers of extensions either taken off the table or frozen, leaving them facing uncertain futures but at the same time under pressure to accept the cuts. One player, whose contract is up in June, has had a two-year extension offer withdrawn but is still expected to accept the wage reduction.
While the vast majority of players accept that sacrifices are necessary, there is a sense clubs have collectively agreed to implement the 25% cuts too quickly and without proper plans in place to finish the season.
There is also growing concern that clubs will make further cuts with the prospect of the Premiership resuming next month highly unlikely and that if players do not take a stand now it will be harder to do so in the future. There have also been suggestions of players threatening to strike but the Rugby Players’ Association has dismissed those claims.
Premiership clubs have acted so quickly because it is estimated each club loses between £300,000 and £500,000 in revenue for any matches that do not take place. If the season is cancelled with no matches played and a reduction in income from broadcasters, some clubs would face financial ruin.
As things stand, the Premiership is suspended despite all other rugby competitions in the country being cancelled. The Premiership Rugby chief executive, Darren Childs, this week claimed that “we are all working to try and hopefully be the first sport back on television” but admitted that playing deep into the summer is inevitable if the season is to be finished.
As well as staging matches behind closed doors, Premiership Rugby is considering hosting multiple games at the same venue and midweek fixtures in order to fulfil the remaining nine rounds as well as the play-offs but playing beyond the end of June – when the majority of contracts expire – raises another potential headache.
Meanwhile, Billy Vunipola has pledged to stay with Saracens next season in the Championship despite speculation he would seek a move abroad. The No8, who missed the Six Nations with a broken arm, conceded that dropping down to the second tier may harm his international prospects but is determined to help Saracens bounce back following their salary cap scandal.
“I can’t see a negative in it,” Vunipola told RugbyPass. “I’ve haven’t spoken directly to the powers at the top, when it comes to England or at Sarries, as to what will happen in terms of international recognition. I’m excited for next year. I reckon I’ll play as much as I can, try to help the team as much as possible and hopefully we’ll come straight back up. I’m definitely staying.”