The new RFU pay deal, details of which have been released this week, has been found to increase some of the top England player’s wages up to seven figures.
Player’s union boss Damien Hopley has been quoted by the BBC as stating that top England players are due this pay day.
“If players are successful and conduct themselves in a way that is becoming to that role model status, then I think they do deserve it”
The pay deal will see England internationals earn up to £300,000 a year in match appearance money by playing for their country in a calendar year and will allow those already on top wages at their clubs to reach the seven figure mark which most professional rugby players in the home nations can only dream of.
Although this relies upon them having sponsorship deals, bonuses and other financial incomings too in order to break seven figures and is certainly not on a par still with the obscene money made by footballers in the top leagues in England, it is still a considerable amount of money for these top England players to receive.
The question begs to be asked then as to whether England’s elite players deserve this deal?
On the one hand one would have to say that this deal seems fair. England have enjoyed a stellar 2016 season, unbeaten under new coach Eddie Jones so far. The ranking of the team has risen from a lowly 8th after the dismal 2015 Rugby World Cup all the way to placing them as the second best team in the world, behind only the All Blacks who have seemed impervious to being knocked off the top spot in the last decade.
This pay deal therefore mirrors the teams success and as a result, when the team does better the players deserve more money. After all, a more successful team means that the RFU is able to earn more from the English rugby brand itself as this will translate into more profit from match tickets, appearances and merchandise among other factors.
One must also take into account the undeniable fact that test rugby is without doubt the most physically demanding standard of the sport when it comes to effects on the body. With players only having a limited amount of time to make their money from the sport due to the general degeneration of the body as they grow older, is it so unfair that they receive more money for putting their body on the line in the most combative and physically demanding standard of rugby in the sport?
In a regular international fixture year England players will play up to 12 or so tests. This year for example regular starting England players will have played 5 tests in the 6 Nations, 3 over the summer in Australia and 4 this Autumn resulting in a combined 12 tests for England this season. This year’s international fixture pattern would result in England players pocketing a tidy £25,000 per test therefore.
Despite this seeming like a lot of money per game, the physicality of these matches against the other home nations and the southern hemisphere teams, especially the extremely physical teams such as the Springboks and the Pacific island teams, increases the risk of injury and heightens the damage on the body for players by playing in test matches.
With concussion, knee, shoulder and neck injuries to name but a few injuries, potentially cutting careers short and damaging standards of life after rugby this money is effectively helping pay for the futures of the players who could see their careers decimated and injuries affect them long term from playing in these incredibly physical games of rugby year in, year out as they represent their country.
The pay deal will also make the England set up even more competitive. Under Stuart Lancaster and now the Eddie Jones regime there has already been noticeable depth growing in the standard of English rugby, and this financial reward will give the squad even greater competition in many ways. This is because top English players will not feel the need to sacrifice their international career in order to make top money abroad in France or Japan.
This can only be better for the team in general, as they can keep a full squad of top talent to choose from, but also the RFU as keeping the top talent means the team’s fortunes should continue upwards and they benefit from the marketability this brings to English rugby.
On the flip side however, the new deals do bring some negatives. The first is that a gulf in salary between the majority of Aviva Premiership’s players and those who represent England will be formed as a consequence of the pay deal.
Aviva Premiership clubs are always keen to provide players to international squads as having recognised top names play at their club puts bums on seats at games. This results in large proportions of the limited salary cap in the Aviva Premiership going on keeping and bringing in these top international players.
An example in the rumour mill right now is England fly-half George Ford. In the last year of his contract at Bath the fly-half is supposedly having big money lined up for him by other Aviva Premiership clubs such as Leicester and Northampton who are keen to tempt him away, whilst his own club Bath will undoubtedly be tabling their best offer to also keep him. This money, kept aside to get a big name player like Ford on the books at an Aviva Premiership side often means that someone else or several other players in the squad are likely to not make as much money as a consequence as squads are squeezed within the salary cap.
These players who already lose out to top England players at their club in terms of earnings per year, will now even further lose out across the course of their career and will not have nearly as much money by the time they hang up their boots. What this really means is that the physical impairments they finish their careers with are not as well compensated as those chosen to represent England.
Although the fact that more valuable workers are paid more than others is a fact of life in any capitalist economy, what is not taken into account is that those players who never quite make the England squad during the course of their careers, have often played just as much rugby and have had just as many injuries as those who have played internationally.
It is hard not to feel particularly sorry for players who perennially miss out on the England team but have pushed their England counterparts hard across the domestic season for that place in the squad. The gulf in money at the end of a career not so different in playing ability must become a bitter pill to swallow when all is said and done and they have retired.
It is also a shame that such large sums of money are seen as necessary to be paid out to players in order for them to play for their country. Gone are the days of representing your country simply because it is the greatest honour a player can achieve and is the pinnacle of the sport when you now know of the substantial sums of money they receive per game for doing it.
The England World Cup-winning team of 2003 received £70,000 each for winning the tournament and making history. England players this Autumn will have earnt more money than that playing four friendly test matches which, when all is said and done, will mean nothing in terms of history in the rugby sporting chapters as they occur nearly every year.
This has a lot to do with the growth of the game and the money coming into it through sponsorship, TV and coverage deals understandably but does not detract from the fear that a lack of pride will creep into the England shirt as financial gains potentially become the primary motivation for representing England.
With this worry comes the question of whether we will also see an influx of foreign talents looking to move over and earn the right to represent England based on this financial incentive? Only time will tell on this and in the meantime this cannot be presumed to be the basis for foreign born newly capped players such as Nathan Hughes aspirations to play internationally for England.
This writer leans on to the side that it is a justified deal though, especially for this current crop of England players. The wealth from this deal may have been born from a Rugby World Cup in which they were dismal, but their current form is second to only what is arguably the finest sports team ever.
Although it may result in players being motivated by financial reward and not pride of representing England, it does mean that we can contend with the money of the French and Japanese leagues which are throwing money at our top talent in an attempt to lure them away and if this means keeping English talent in England for fans to spectate and be inspired by then this is not a negative.
One must also consider that should this current crop of England players continue on the form that has justified this pay deal and carry it through and win the next World cup, this conundrum will have become all too moot in the eyes of the English supporters…
Hamish Milner, Pundit Arena
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