Since the dawn of professionalism in rugby it feels like there has been no real agreed plan on how the sport as a whole should progress.
England and France have adopted approaches similar to those in football, with privately-owned and run clubs producing players for Test teams. However, most of the other major nations have come to operate some kind of central control, with governing bodies owning or part-owning representative regions or provinces to at least some degree.
Private business owners will have their own different priorities to governing bodies, and the club versus country issues that have dogged the game in English and French rugby in particular over the decades illustrate the mess the sport finds itself in without any real forward planning put in place from the start.
Because of this mish-mash of systems and approaches across the globe with no real central restrictions, French and English clubs tend to hold far greater spending power than teams in the southern hemisphere and the rest of Europe, where smaller crowds and smaller fan bases mean those sides simply cannot compete with their wealthier rivals.
In the English Aviva Premiership, the clubs and the RFU have a salary cap in place to ensure financial disasters caused by crippling salary costs like the cases of Richmond and London Scottish are a rarity, and indeed in France there are financial regulations in place to try and avoid clubs imploding in on themselves.
However, Saracens’ Maro Itoje has become the sport’s first ‘£1 million-a-season’ player, despite the salary cap in England’s top tier set at £7 million for the 2017-2018 season. French and English clubs continue to purchase the best players from across the world to the detriment of national teams with salaries rising higher and higher each season. Somehow, clubs seem to find a way of paying vasts amount of money despite these national restrictions.
In the tier below the Premiership, the Championship, teams like Jersey Reds have had to severely limit their spending costs and thus their ability to compete with the top teams in the league. London Welsh effectively ended up back as an amateur club in Herts/Middlesex Division One having found themselves in a dire financial situation.
Of course, the models followed in these countries are supposed to mean bringing in the best foreign talent helps to support the development of younger ‘homegrown’ players.
Yet very often opportunities for youngsters, particularly in France, can be limited by an abundance of ready-made talent from abroad.
The All Blacks, the Wallabies and increasingly the Springboks every year have to deal with losing top assets to other countries where they have limited say over the availability of those individuals for international duty.
The All Blacks maintain a policy of not picking individuals based outside of their own borders, but in Australia and South Africa the two countries have adapted to a changing situation as best they can.
For European clubs it is a difficult balance: to compete you need the best players, but you need to generate revenue to avoid financial collapse. Yet national salary caps do not avoid talent drains across the rest of the world and the case of London Welsh shows it’s still very easy to over-spend in an attempt to compete.
It seems then that an agreed global salary cap negotiated by World Rugby could be a way forward. No one wants to see teams disappear because of over-spending, but at the same time the current set-up engenders spiralling player salaries that could well bring this about with greater regularity.
If there was a cap on individual player salaries agreed by all clubs and governing bodies then it would mean less issues for both Test and domestic teams. Some clubs operate tiered player expenditure – such an approach universally could make a huge difference.
No one wants to see the absurd extremes witnessed in football right now like Neymar’s transfer to Paris Saint-Germain from Barcelona for an astronomical fee. That is not sustainable and rugby is still in a place where it can stop spending growing out of control.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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