Whilst the annual salaries of Premiership rugby players acquaint to mere weeks’ wages in the life of a Premiership footballer, you’d be wrong in thinking that money means nothing in this game.
Underestimating spending power is a naivety which invites exposure to diminished talent pools and bids of farewell to flurries of players following suit.
The RPA’s Damian Hopley more than a year ago admitted that the possibility of an exodus of top internationals across the Channel was a concern for the English game. More than a year down the line and the nightmare continues, now more vivid than ever before.
Heavy weight Top 14 Toulon has brought about many a lucrative move, with the likes of Wilkinson, Steffon Armitage, Shaw and most recently Sale prop Sheridan all contributing to a contingent that now stands at seven. To add insult to injury these, at one time or another, have all been players whose absence will have been felt painfully within the England camp.
But the pulling powers of Bernard Laporte are not alone in bearing influence on players close to home. England’s Tom Palmer has firmly laid the foundations with Stade Français, while a series of high profile moves shaking the Welsh regions have included the departures of Lee Byrne and Mike Phillips at the hands of Clermont Auvergne and Bayonne respectively; a list that is expected to grow further as the eyes of the French are fixated on a pool of players achieving great things both Internationally and domestically.
Granted, one of the most powerful tools at French clubs’ disposal is the fact that they are unhindered by a restrictive salary cap; working to an €8.7m (approximately £7.6m) cap per club is a luxury they have enjoyed with wealthy benefactors and stakeholders behind them. With the money to lure players from overseas, clubs with money to burn are a million miles from the Premiership. Put in place in the late 90s the Premiership’s salary cap, despite being almost doubled in the lead up to the 2008/2009 season, rests at near to half that of the Top 14 at £4m.
Each of Wales’ four regional sides meanwhile will battle with a £3.5m limit. Financial strains were said to have made such an imposition necessary but this neither eases the pain for fans resenting the exit of key players nor paints an attractive picture for the long term future of the Welsh domestic game.
There is an ongoing fear that the injection of cash into the game will also drive a wedge between players and fans, as supporters’ loyalty wavers at home grown talent crossing the border. But more than this there has, for a long time, been a sense of mutual respect in a gentleman’s game which enjoys and invites a close proximity between players and fans. It is, again, difficult not to compare this to football; the game of the untouchable millionaires.
But how is floating French cash harming the British game and how are we to compete against massively heightened salary bands to pull the focus away from the financials and onto the importance of flying the British flag?
Whilst historically there may have been strength in the argument that the French game offered far less in terms of opportunity and progression than the English, meaning moves abroad really were made solely on financial grounds, a French domestic game which is doing great things and an abundance of players who have departed to enjoy flourishing careers have distilled this contention somewhat. The risk remains that, should there be a level playing field between the game in the UK and that in France then players will surely follow the path that offers them as greater opportunities and benefits, but comes with a significant cash uplift.
What’s left then of the British game? Arguably voids in the talent pool where valuable players prove irreplaceable. With the looming disappearance of players on a domestic level comes absenteeism at a National level. At best, players competing abroad will miss out on crucial training weeks, as those joining the National side from Premiership clubs contracted to release terms enjoy a head start, and at worst these players will face non qualification for the National call up if coaching teams opt to rule with the territorial iron fist.
It comes down surely to contractual intelligence and to players who are committed to representing their country insisting that they be legally entitled for release and made publicly available for selection, in advance of signing on the dotted line. The only aspect potentially compromising what seems a most sensible approach is money signs in the eyes of agents focused on completing high value overseas transactions, rather than taking the relevant steps to ensure the door to the National arena is kept open.
With big spending French clubs waving the financial flag of temptation it’s difficult to see how players can refuse and, moreover, how British clubs can compete.
If the Top 14 is the new black then you’d be forgiven for thinking that remaining in the UK is like the revival of last season’s wardrobe malfunction.