Whatever the final outcome of the yet to be completed 2019-20, it appears the campaign will be remembered for all the wrong reasons, writes Gareth Davies.
In terms of the coronavirus pandemic, this is, and still is a scenario that even your worst nightmare would fail to yield.
Countless lives lost and damage to our economy and way of life that could take a generation to repair. Naturally, given the social aspect of sport, it has been decimated by lockdown, with the first tentative steps to recovery not coming for professional rugby on these shores until mid-August at the earliest.
But even before covid-19 took hold of our nation, rugby was fighting battles which were entirely of its own doing.
Firstly, we had the Saracens salary cap scandal which engulfed the game into a murky vacuum of disrepute with the most successful club side of its era shamed after what equates to financial doping.
Quite rightly, Sarries were punished in the severest way possible and next season, whenever that will be, Mark McCall, with some of his England stars staying put, will travel to the likes of Ampthill and London Scottish as a Championship club.
A scandal of this magnitude was always going to prompt reform and after an forensic examination of the salary cap, the Myners Report outlined 52 fundamental changes as to how Premiership Rugby’s system for players’ contracts and salaries works.
The most notable recommendation from the report was to slash the salary cap and cut the marquee player rule to just one player. Unsurprisingly, those clubs with the deepest pockets were unhappy.
Steve Lansdown, owner of the Bristol Bears felt that any adjustments to the marquee player rule would ‘dilute the appeal’ of Premiership Rugby. Now that may be the case, but not every club is in the same boat as Bristol which is in no way meant to be a disrespectful statement, purely fact.
It therefore came as something of a surprise when all 13 shareholders of Premiership Rugby, which includes the 12 current top-flight clubs and Newcastle Falcons, voted to back the proposals.
Then, on Monday, with many clubs facing financial ruin due to coronavirus, the decision was collectively made to cut the salary cap by £1.4million for the 2021-22 season. This means it will stay at £5million until 2023-24 to give clubs a chance to recover their finances which have been ripped to shreds by the pandemic.
Cue virtual back slapping and wide smiles at some clubs whose balance sheets, despite the investment from CVC in December 2018, are still a long way from being considered healthy.
It appears, though, that one key aspect has been overlooked and that is just how the players, some with lucrative long contracts, would absorb a permanent reduction in salary after a temporary 25 per cent drop which many reluctantly agreed to when the league was first suspended back in March.
What happened next has once again forced rugby into the gutter, something that everyone connected with the game hoped would never happen again post Saracens.
Less than 24-hours after the cap changes were announced, Mark Lambert, the evergreen and burly Harlequins prop, who is also chairman of the Rugby Players’ Association, released a statement accusing Premiership Rugby of ‘absolute disregard’ for players. The most telling and worrying comment was that legal action is being considered as clubs are forcing their most prized assets to sign contracts which reflect the cap changes without consolation.
“Most of the players have already had temporary 25% pay cuts since March and April as a result of the unprecedented financial challenges exposed by covid-19”, the statement read. Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL) have been seeking agreement to reduce players’ wages permanently by 25 per cent across all PRL clubs. This was unanimously rejected by the Players’ Board.
“The RPA have been working diligently over the last 12 weeks to seek to avoid a repeat of the damaging situation the game found itself in when the clubs imposed temporary wage cuts on a unilateral basis in mid-March. This latest situation could have been entirely avoided with a collaborative and transparent approach and we now find ourselves heading towards a significant legal dispute unless meaningful and genuine dialogue takes place urgently. In the meantime, the RPA position remains unequivocal: the RPA is opposed to permanent cuts for our members.
“From the outset of this crisis there has been an absolute disregard for the players and the values of the game. Players at some clubs are now being served with ultimatums and being put under undue pressure to sign amended contracts through the manufactured deadline of June 18. To be clear, this is a totally unacceptable way to operate. Players are the lifeblood of the game and should be treated with respect. Players should not engage with this approach. The RPA will continue to fight for our members throughout this crisis.”
Quite where the game goes from here remains to be seen although with coronavirus, the obstacle that halted the game back in March, edging closer to being hurdled, another stumbling block could derail plans to restart the season in eight weeks time.