A small group of English clubs are using their financial clout to take a stranglehold on both the Aviva Premiership and the European Champions Cup, but being funded by a number of multi-millionaires and billionaires means their success is not sustainable in the long-term, argues Paul Wassell.
Talent-laden Saracens were the talk of the tournament on Saturday as the current European champions defeated three-times European Cup winners Toulon in their own back yard.
It was money against money as Saracens’ tremendous core of young English talent – bolstered by southern hemisphere stars in both the starting line-up and the bench – took on the ageing global superstars of the south of France.
The likes of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Billy Vunipola, Owen Farrell and Alex Goode did their England chances no harm for the upcoming tests at Twickenham, although Itoje’s cynical play for his yellow card could have cost his team dearly.
However, despite a second half fightback from the home team, Saracens came out on top and look even better than they did last season as they swept all before them.
Of course, this is a team that has depth in every single position and can take on the biggest names in European rugby even with the likes of Chris Ashton missing.
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When club stalwart Jacques Burger retired last season, the club simply brought in another top quality player in Schalk Burger. When their back three options were looking a little thin, they nabbed Scotland and Lions international Sean Maitland from relegated London Irish. One would have to have been living under a rock not to have noticed the club being linked with the likes of Eben Etzebeth this past week even though they currently boast both of England’s first choice locks.
Then look at Wasps and the squad they have built up over the past few seasons since Derek Richardson took over as owner. They too have so much quality right across the pitch, and despite saying goodbye to talismen George Smith and Charles Piutau as well as seeing James Haskell and new signing Kurtley Beale succomb to long-term injuries, they can still field almost two teams of the highest quality.
But all this spending has to come from somewhere and back in January this year Saracens announced its debts had grown to £45 million. Wasps have offered up a retail bond on the Ricoh Arena hoping to raise cash to pay off its significant debts as well.
In contrast, East Midlands rivals Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints continue to make profits and stay debt free, although the Tigers did record an operating loss of £424,000 last season, arguably due to it being a World Cup year and the impact this can have on clubs.
However, both Tigers and Saints are now struggling to make an impact in the Premiership and the Champions Cup, with the Premiership’s three richest clubs in the aforementioned duo and Bath leading the way. Leicester’s recent home loss to Wasps and their humbling up in Scotland against a slick Glasgow Warriors side show a team still struggling to form a coherent identity.
Moreover, Northampton Saints now lie in lowly ninth position in the Premiership having won only two of their six fixtures so far.
Both Saracens and Wasps have moved into their own grounds with the hope of long-term stability through increased ticket sales, but even then take into account average attendance stats and both Wasps and Saracens are absolutely dwarfed by Leicester and Northampton, particularly when you take out Saracens’ occasional games at Wembley.
Both Wasps and Saracens have combined burgeoning squads with quality coaching set-ups, with Bath now matching their excellent squad on paper with the former Crusaders duo of Todd Blackadder and Tabai Matson, with both having an immediate impact. It’s a recipe for success that works, but it doesn’t come cheap.
What will be frustrating for neutral English rugby fans here is the fact that the salary cap that has been in place since the disaster days of Richmond and London Scottish being swallowed up by London Irish is not preventing some of England’s clubs from racking up enormous debts, placing their very existence under threat.
Rumours were previously circulating that Bath owner Bruce Craig was looking to pull out of the club; these were garnering so much concern from fans that the club felt it necessary to issue a statement to the contrary. Had this been genuinely true, the club would have been sent into immediate turmoil.
Whilst all the clubs mentioned would no doubt be able to produce evidence to show they are sticking to the spending restrictions of the salary cap, the debts they have announced show that if their owners and co-owners did decide to suddenly pull out then these beautiful golden castles that are being built will sink into nothingness.
English rugby needs to do more to stop this emerging two-tier hierarchy before it is too late.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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