After England’s failure at the Six Nations, finishing only above Italy, (at least no-
one has pretended that it was anything but a failure) the knives have all too
predictably been going in all directions. Quite a few have landed in Eddie Jones’ back, but many commentators have looked at the Irish and asked what they are doing that we’re not. The answer for many has been central contracts.
Ireland, Wales and Scotland, who finished first, second and third respectively, all use a form of central contracts. So, do New Zealand, and they’re not a bad team either.
Under the English model, the RFU effectively pays the Premiership clubs to release players called up for the national team under the terms of the Professional Game Agreement, which runs until 2024.
The advantage of central contracts is that it allows unions to control its players’ workloads and grant longer rest periods. While nine of England’s players started their season in the first weekend of September, the majority of Ireland’s contingent enjoyed an extra four weeks off. The England fly-half Owen Farrell has played 1084 minutes for Saracens this season, more than double the 435 minutes his Irish counterpart, Jonnie Sexton, has played for Leinster.
A Lions tour is a special event, but it takes much more out of the player. The last time England lost three in a row in the Six Nations was in 2006, coming after the 2005 New Zealand tour. A coincidence?
Steve Hansen, the New Zealand head coach, claimed that there is a clear difference between the energy levels of the English and Irish players. “They (Ireland) have got central contracting which allows them to maybe have a bit more control over playing time and player welfare than the countries where they don’t have that luxury” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.
But both the RFU and Premiership Rugby are adamant that the introduction of central contracts would be a non-starter, at least in the short term. Exeter Chiefs chairman Tony Rowe poured very cold water over the idea. “The RFU struggle to find the money to pay for the players they use and abuse once a year anyway” he told the Telegraph. “Central Contracts sounds great, but you can’t just cherry-pick the best players. If they want to contract our players, they would need to contract all of them and I would like to see where they are going to get the money for that from”.
But the clubs are losing, collectively, about £30 million a year. If, by some extraordinary coup, the RFU signed up the top 40 English players in the country and paid their wages, they would be saving the clubs about two-thirds of that. The RFU then has control over when and where they play. In theory, it is beautiful.
In practice though, there is a form of central contracting already. The Elite Player Squad (EPS) agreement is a contract between England and the clubs that already deals with player release and with the payment of around £2000,000 per player per year so the RFU can have some control over these lucky assets.
The first EPS agreement did not allow for player release from the clubs in the fallow weeks of the Six Nations. Now, there is also a release week before international campaigns, and an enforced break afterwards. This is central contracting lite. If England and the RFU want further control over the players then, when the next EPS contract is being negotiated, to start in 20121, the RFU should pay considerably more than £200,000 per player, and effectively buy them out of a few more club games a year. The clubs may hate losing their players, but they love the cash for which they get recompensed.
If the RFU wants to press further, it would have to pay for it. You want Daly at No. 15 for Wasps? Then pay Wasps to play him there for, say, four games a season.
There are limits though. England may want to be more Irish and completely buy up the players, but the clubs wouldn’t give it a sniff. Whoever controls the players controls the game.
Central contracting would also interfere with the sporting integrity of the Aviva Premiership. If the RFU pays the players direct, then some clubs would get international players for free, others wouldn’t. The Premiership is already lopsided enough, with Harlequins, for instance, being required to play Newcastle Falcons during the Six Nations, and therefore without a number of their best players. Central contacts would leave Quins in even less control of their assets. If the RFU wants ultimate, complete, Ireland-level control, it would have to buy up the Premiership.
As Tony Rowe would put it: “Show us your money”