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The Millionaires’ Playground: Premiership Rugby Following In Football’s Footsteps

With the arrival of Bristol being confirmed after an aggregate victory over Doncaster in the Championship play-off final, the number of Premiership clubs with multi-millionaire backers is on the rise, emulating the extraordinary amount of investment from private owners in Premier League football.

Newly-promoted Championship winners Bristol are owned by Stephen Lansdown, who also runs Bristol Sport, meaning he has a majority stake in Bristol City FC, and Bristol Flyers basketball team.

His £45 million investment Bristol’s home, Ashton Gate, has seen the stadium transformed into a 27,000 seater behemoth, one of the biggest grounds in the Premiership to rival that of fellow club Leicester Tigers’ Welford Road.

Yet with Bath owned by Bruce Craig – who sold his pharmaceutical services company Markern, for £975 million, Wasps owned by Irish business magnate Derek Richardson and Saracens co-owned by English millionaire Nigel Wray and South African billionaire Johann Rupert, a cluster of clubs is emerging in the Premiership that has far greater financial clout than the rest of the league put together.

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 10:  A general view of the stadium during the Aviva Premiership match between Leicester Tigers and Saracens at Welford Road on May 10, 2014 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

As reported by Pundit Arena earlier this year, changes to Premiership rugby’s salary cap will mean greater allowances for all clubs, including two marquee players whose cost is outside that of the cap and newly-created international player credits that will mean clubs will be able to spend more depending on the number and type of players they lose to international matches.

Of course, for some clubs this will make little difference to them. Sale Sharks’ director of rugby Steve Diamond has previously revealed that the club do not currently spend up to the salary cap limit. For clubs without the luxury of generous multi-millionaire owners, they would be lucky to have the £6.5 million limit to spend on players.

With the changes being brought in, there is a real danger that a two-tier Premiership could be created and with that comes significant challenges for those clubs with less cash to flash. Player retention has always been a struggle for the likes of Sale, Newcastle, London Irish and even Worcester.

READING, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 04:  London Irish fans during the Aviva Premiership match between London Irish and Northampton Saints at Madejski Stadium on October 4, 2014 in Reading, England.  (Photo by Martin Willetts/Getty Images)

Saracens, for instance, have produced a number of quality players through their own academy structures, but likewise have brought in English talent like Charlie Hodgson, David Strettle, Mako and Billy Vunipola, Richard Wigglesworth, Brad Barritt, Chris Ashton and more from other clubs. England number eight Billy Vunipola left former clubs Wasps during their financial troubles to a more stable environment.

However, with Richardson on board Wasps have been transformed into a European rugby powerhouse. The recent signing of Australia’s Kurtley Beale and the fact that the club is linked to almost every major player available on the global market shows the kind of impact they are making on rugby’s domestic scene. Like Bristol, their new home is now the enormous Ricoh Arena in Coventry, able to hold up to 32,000 fans.

Even Richardson himself defended the importance of the Premiership’s salary cap (via The Daily Telegraph):

“There is no point in [the Premiership] being like Formula One, where you have your McLarens and Ferraris winning all the time. You need to have excitement and the fun and the competitiveness there as well.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 03:  A general view of the Aviva Premiership trophy during the launch of the Aviva Premiership Rugby 2015-16 Season Fixtures at the BT Tower on July 3, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)

But the recent Champions Cup and Premiership play-off semi-finals show that perhaps English rugby is going down that route. The introduction of the Champions Cup format has essentially rewarded clubs with the ability to spend more on playing squads and as such create greater depth. Wasps, Exeter and Saracens all have significant individual financial support and all made the quarter-finals or semi-finals in Europe, as well as the semi-finals in England.

Even though Bath have had a season to forget, their dismissal of Mike Ford after his success at the club in previous seasons echoed the cut-throat nature of football’s Premier League. The worldwide rumours flying around about Ford’s potential successor mirrored those we see in the self-proclaimed ‘beautiful game’ every day.

With bigger and bigger names joining the Premiership, and with more and more allowances for the clubs to spend, the salary cap is slowly being eroded and there is a widening of the chasm between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.

English rugby might not be so different to English football after all.

Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena


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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.