Last month, Saracens chief executive Edward Griffiths called for a complete abolishment of the salary cap for English Premiership clubs, claiming that he had the backing of six other major teams. As it stands, Premiership clubs are restricted to spending £5m on player’s salaries. Though this is rising to £5.5m next season, Griffiths and his cohorts want to spend more. Calling for clubs to be able to manage their finances independently, he told the BBC: “It’s time to seize this golden opportunity to grow the game… to build the strongest league in world rugby and to let players earn market-related salaries.”
Whether Griffiths’ use of ‘golden’ was ironic or not, his remarks can be seen through fairly easily: Saracens have a lot of money. As do Bath, and a few other top teams. Bath recently spent a lot of money acquiring the services of Sam Burgess, the rugby league star making a transition to rugby union, hopefully in time for the 2015 World Cup. It is perfectly reasonable that teams want to make signings like this as it raises their profile, as well as that of the game itself. However, the problem is that other teams don’t quite have as much money, which is why Richard Cockerill and Steve Diamond, head coaches of Leicester Tigers and Sale Sharks respectively, defended the salary cap. Cockerill observed that “it keeps the league competitive”, with Diamond adding that any effort to abolish the cap is “ridiculous”.
“It’s time to seize this golden opportunity to grow the game…to build the strongest league in world rugby and to let players earn market-related salaries,” Saracens chief executive Edward Griffiths told the BBC.
The reason that so much emotion is being spent on this debate is the potential consequences of any major decision to “#scrapthecap”, as Griffiths put it. Clubs with wealthy owners would be able to import world class international players, while teams that rely more heavily on academies and home-grown talent would be left in their wake. The evidence of this lies in France, where the salary cap was all but abolished a few years ago (it stands at €10m): teams like Toulon and Racing Metro have flourished with their multitudes of international veterans and their competition get routinely beaten. Another comparable situation is the current state of F1, where teams like Caterham and Marussia have suffered because of their big-spending rivals.
It’s probably worth clarifying why the cap is in place at all. As it stands, the limited spending cap on salaries encourages clubs to develop young talent and bring players through their academies, thus nurturing the growth of English rugby. Teams are awarded financial bonuses if they opt for this tactic rather than importing expensive international players. Not only does this keep the league competitive as all teams are on an even footing, it also pays off when it comes to England as an international team. Coupled with Stuart Lancaster’s decision to only pick players from English clubs, the cap ensures that competition for England places is carried out in England, with players directly facing their possible competitors. The RFU liaise with Premiership clubs to a great extent, allowing them to control the management of English players. This system has proven effective: English rugby is in a fantastic situation at present, with strong competition for all the first XV places and England genuinely competing with the likes of New Zealand and South Africa.
All-Blacks fly-half Dan Carter has pledged his allegiance to Racing Metro at the close of the World Cup for a record-breaking fee of £1m a year
And yet: France. It is all too tempting for players to leave the English Premiership and earn possibly twice or three times their current salary in the Top 14 league. It has already attracted the likes of Toby Flood and Steffon Armitage, with Northampton Saints stars Samu Manoa and Selesi Ma’afu following suit next season. Toulon have dominated both French and European rugby in the last few seasons; Jonny Wilkinson, one of the most famous faces to leave for France, captained them to both of these wins before retiring with full pockets. His old enemy, All-Blacks fly-half Dan Carter, has pledged his allegiance to Racing Metro at the close of the World Cup for a record breaking fee of £1m a year, while a veritable horde of players from the southern hemisphere have followed his lead.
The prestige of the players joining the exodus to France perhaps worries figures like Griffiths, fearing that the Premiership will simply not be able to compete against such strong opposition when it comes to European rugby. He made the comparison of asking Arsenal to compete with Barcelona or Bayern Munich without access to the same resources. It’s a fair judgement and a genuine worry for some prominent figures in English rugby.
However, another direct comparison between English rugby and English football can be made when it comes to international matches. Teams in the football Premier League field, for the most part, a majority of world class foreign players. Though this is exciting to watch and makes money, it results in a national side which didn’t make it out of the group stages in last year’s World Cup. On the flip side, England rugby are moving from strength to strength, with a genuine chance of winning the rugby World Cup later this year.
The salary cap should not be abolished. Raising it to £5.5m next season will appease some of those who worry for the Premiership, but their worries need not persist. English clubs are improving all the time, with the Aviva Premiership being one of the most fiercely-contended competitions of the modern age. Keeping the cap means keeping clubs on a level playing field, and securing the future of the national side.
Follow Jack on Twitter: @jackrhart
Images courtesy of guardian.co.uk