We could be witnessing the start of a perfect storm for English rugby: too many clubs losing too much money, ever-increasing demands on players to the extent that strike action has been mentioned, and PRL’s latest whizz, the controversial suggestion that the domestic season should run from September through to the end of June.
PRL has said that the current limit of a maximum of 32 games during the course of a season will remain, but they’ve been light on details about how the new extended season will work. However, they have uttered the now virtually meaningless mantra that “player welfare is a priority”- no statement from any of the sport’s administrators can omit these words, but just saying them doesn’t make it happen.
But it would be entirely wrong to cast the clubs as some Victorian employer, flogging the players to breaking point, because they are businesses like any other, trying to become income sustainable. Well, some of them are, although the lack of action from the game’s authorities to curb reckless spending and ridiculous losses from a few bank-rolled clubs is nigh on obscene.
So perhaps we should get rid of promotion and relegation, and move to a 14-team Premiership. That will generate more revenue for the clubs, and with four extra week-ends, presumably even more revenue from the broadcasters. However, the only way that will work is if the additional cash is spent on adding more players to the clubs’ squads. Currently most clubs’ senior squads contain between 40-45 players, with the Academy numbers on top, and that needs to increase to between 50 and 55, enabling players to be better managed, with rest periods built in. PRL’s proposal for a ten-month club season, equating to 11 months for international players, seems to end the of pre-season as we know it. Yet, the medics believe that a proper pre-season is essential to assist recovery, and then to prepare for the demands of the coming season.
The Championship is the most obvious source of additional players, and that would solve another problem. The limit of most of the Championship sides’ ambition is to avoid relegation to National League 1. Barring Bristol and Yorkshire Carnegie, it is a league designed to entertain local fans.
The players, and their agents, have a role to play in this too. Billy Vunipola has said that he would consider a pay cut if he had to play fewer games. It’s time to test the waters: would other players take a pay cut if they were limited to the equivalent of say, 30 games a season? With 26 Premiership games, plus the play-offs, and between six and nine European ties, the season would have between 32 and 37 possible matches for “journeymen” players, with another possible dozen international matches for the elite. Hence the need for much bigger squad sizes.
The question is, would the clubs commit to managing their star players to stick within a lower limit of games, or the number of minutes played in a season, and would fans tolerate not seeing their clubs’ best players for as many as half of the league fixtures? It requires the most unlikely scenario imaginable, the clubs in the guise of PRL, the RFU, and the players, all working together to protect the future of the professional game. It’s in everyone’s interest to do this, because the financial state of some Premiership clubs is parlous.
The clubs need to remember that without their players there isn’t a league, or a future for their businesses, and the players need to understand that if a few clubs went to the wall, the whole house of cards would fall, with a devastating effect on their salaries. Mutual self-interest needs to come to the fore and the long term will have to be prioritised ahead of short term interest.