I have written in the past how rugby union is acquiring the (bad) habits of the round-ball game. We are barely into 2017 and Leicester Tigers find themselves in the position of Arsenal post-Abramovich – qualifying for Europe every season, while living within their means and reducing debt, but never seriously threatening to win the league or a European trophy.
Happy new year to you all,” wrote Richard Cockerill in what turned out to be his final programme notes as Leicester’s director of rugby. Less than 24 hours later, the club announced he had been sacked following the defeat by the club who have become as dominant this decade as the Tigers were in the 2000s, Saracens.
Cockerill became the second director of rugby of a Premiership club to lose his job this season following Andy Robinson’s dismissal by Bristol and five sides are now under different management from last season, as are the relegated London Irish. Leicester could not be accused of acting in haste as they faced up to a prospect of missing out on a trip to Twickenham in May for a fourth consecutive season. But as they showed in 2004 when removing another stalwart who had spent 23 years at Welford Road, Dean Richards, sentiment stretches only so far.
Before the start of the Twickenham double-header in 2004, Leicester were by some distance the best supported club in England and the only one to regularly record a profit. At the end of the previous season, their average gate for a league match was 16,120; Northampton were second, 5,000 behind. Bath, Wasps and Saracens did not make it into five figures.
It was a time when Leicester could sign big names from abroad, such as Pat Howard, Rod Kafer, Aaron Mauger – who is in interim charge of the first team after Cockerill’s departure – and Daryl Gibson, supplementing them with those lesser known such as Marcos Ayerza and Martin Castrogiovanni. These days, the elite end up in the Top 14 or as a marquee signing for English clubs able to live beyond their means.
Just as Roman Abramovich changed Premier League football when he bought Chelsea in 2003 and covered debts of £80m, so the ownership model of clubs ahead of Leicester in the table, Exeter excluded, has recalibrated the Premiership.
Saracens’ debt stood at more than £45m last year after an annual loss of nearly £4m, a shortfall covered by the club’s parent company, Premier Team Holdings Limited.
Bath lost £1.8m last year, down from £3m in 2014. Wasps lost £2.4m and took £35m in debt when they issued a bond scheme that is due in 2022, by which time the club anticipate a significant rise in revenue from outside rugby through the Ricoh Arena. Leicester, a public limited company, have the highest turnover of any Premiership club and the largest number of regular supporters, but paying to improve facilities – the latest upgrade at Welford Road cost £8m – left them reaching the salary cap but not making any marquee signings until the arrival of the Australian centre Matt Toomua last summer, and he played just a couple of matches before sustaining a long-term knee injury.
Leicester find themselves in the position of Arsenal post-Abramovich, going from vying for the title to battling for a top-four place while living within their means and reducing the debt on the Emirates Stadium.
It is in one sense fitting that Leicester’s first match without Cockerill was at Wasps. A couple of years ago it would have meant a trip to Wycombe but now it is a Midlands derby with the former London club now based in Coventry, a shortish drive from Leicester and Northampton, another club run on business lines that is scrabbling to keep up.
The Tigers board’s first task is to look at the coaching setup. Does it go for a director of rugby in the Martin Johnson mould, someone who would let the head coach run the rugby side while having responsibility for recruitment and contracts, or continue with the current structure? Then comes the question of how to compete with clubs such as Saracens, who are able to absorb large losses. Is the old way, on and off the pitch, becoming the wrong way for a club that should be the model for others?