How the Premiership Rugby £5m salary cap affects the rugby pyramid

Rugby is facing an escalating job crisis with more and more players out of contract and no offers on the table. The reduced salary cap in the Premiership means that squad sizes will be thinning and player wages dropping.

According to the Rugby Players’ Association, there will 70 players without a club this summer, which is 20 more than last year. There’s a big worry amongst those in the game as to what will happen to these players. Will players drop away from the game entirely or will they move down the leagues to find work?

Those that will most likely be affected are the long-standing squad players who are part of the rotation when injuries hit or when the big stars head off for international duty. With the cap reduction, instead of clubs relying on this type of experienced player they will now be looking to blood academy players as an alternative. This is a more cost-effective solution and will help keep the wage bill under the cap.

The fact that there is no relegation at the moment in the Premiership also doesn’t help. The lack of jeopardy acts as a counter-incentive for clubs to pad out their squads with higher quality and experienced squad players. With league security guaranteed, clubs who aren’t pushing for a top 4 finish can afford to lose a few games throughout the season by fielding a half second-string XV made up of less experienced and cheaper players.

Although yes, some will lose out, it is possible that the reduced wage cap will have a positive affect on the overall quality of the league pyramid in the longer term. The players who are facing the rugby job crisis have four realistic options. One – Try and get yourself a contract at another Premiership club (most likely taking a wage cut). Two – Drop down the Championship and ply your trade there (again most likely taking a wage cut). Three – Go abroad. Four – Change career / retire from rugby.

If we look at these in order, the first option is less likely because if you find yourself surplus to requirements at one Premiership club, it’s likely that there are others in your shoes at others clubs and you’ll be surplus to requirements there too. The reality is that demand for players has dropped which gives clubs the leverage when offering contracts. Players will find themselves in a ‘take it or leave it’ situation which is never nice. Some of the figures being mentioned are for contracts at around £25k-35k per year. The risks player’s take endangering their bodies to play rugby (let’s remember at the top tier of English domestic rugby) this type of compensation is nowhere near acceptable. The players it affects too are likely to be older with families so the compensation to play the sport may not be enough.

Number two – dropping down to the Championship. This is the option for those players who can’t get themselves a contract in the Premiership but still want to be involved in the game. The conundrum may be ‘a contract is better than no contract’ but the likelihood is that unless you’re able to become a top earner in the Championship you’re not going to be in a much better situation financially. However if we take the stance from the game’s position rather than the player’s position, rugby in England as a whole will benefit from more experienced and higher profile players playing in the Championship. If 50-70 Premiership squad level players drop down to the Championship this will dramatically improve the quality of the league. If this trend continues then over time this could narrow the gap in quality between the Championship and Premiership and create two competitive domestic leagues.

Abroad – This option will also be difficult for players because where can they go, realistically? France has a domestic player squad quota which makes it difficult for foreign players to squeeze into squads. This would especially be the case for unwanted players in the Premiership, it’s likely they would at best fall into squads in France’s second tier. Japanese clubs are also tending to do their player shopping in the Oceania market so opportunities are few and far between here. Slim possibilities abroad could be good news for the English rugby pyramid as it might force players hands to stay put.

The fourth option is something no rugby club, player or fan wants to hear – retire and quit the game. A rugby player’s career is a relatively short with average length being 13 years from the ages of 21 – 34. This means if you’re a player approaching the end of your career and contracts aren’t on the table, or the ones that are on the table aren’t appealing, the temptation to look outside of the game must be strong. It’s an unfortunate inevitable outcome that if you reduce the wage cap, the player pool will also reduce. If this is an inevitable outcome then it’s down to those making the decision to reduce the cap to also put things in place to try and keep these players involved in the game in some capacity.

The best result for the overall game is that reducing the wage cap in the Premiership moves players down the English pyramid increasing the overall quality of players at multiple levels in England. What no one wants is it to cause a reduction of the player pool in England but to say its not a possibility would be naïve – Only time will tell.