Covid-19 has turned players’ lives upside down but rugby was already in fragile state

Unprecedented times call for drastic measures. People are struggling to cope with lockdown and the financial pressures that come with it. Rugby players are no exception. A front-row forward suddenly knows more about the government’s furlough scheme and pay cuts than many who work within the financial sector. I am one of the players, coaches, physios and other support staff who have found our lives turned upside down. But this is not just about reducing player wages to help clubs survive the crisis. The parlous state of the game’s finances predates Covid-19.

Rugby has to find a way to come out of the crisis stronger, not weaker. Players will help by taking a pay cut but the ultimate ambition of rugby must be to grow the sport. In the long term no business prospers simply by cutting back: a good product, proper investment and, above all, a motivated workforce are necessary for that.

As a Bedford Blues player, I have been put on the government furlough scheme in an attempt to prevent my club’s financial ruin. This has become all too common up and down the country. Taking a 20% pay cut and no opportunity to earn match fees or win bonuses is one of the new normalities of life. There are other changes, too.

The novelty of home workouts, park runs and passing the rugby ball into a garden post is wearing off. I’m sure most players are desperate to get back to team training. Some are lucky to have, or be located near, a form of outdoor space but others are cooped up in apartments, throwing themselves into HIIT workouts, or succumbing to their partner’s wish to record a TikTok video, something I have avoided so far!

A player lives by the schedule planned by others. You work from weekend to weekend. Take that away and you are left with a feeling of emptiness. And then, to top it all off, you get told you will be given a pay cut, put on a furlough scheme, without any end date. Some players do not even know where the next job will be, as contract negotiations come to a halt.

Rugby’s finances in the professional era do not make great reading. Bedford and my former club Exeter usually turn over a profit by the end of the financial year, but these success stories are uncommon. So uncommon it poses worrying questions about the sport’s future. Add Covid-19 to the mix, with all clubs heading towards a financial deficit, and rugby’s future looks as uncertain as the pandemic.

Inflation of player wages has undoubtedly not helped clubs to balance the books. Financial cuts have become a necessity to stay afloat and players have tried to do the honourable thing. A member of newly promoted Newcastle told me many players voiced their concerns when information was distributed via text messages and emails.

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Racing 92’s Olivier Klemenczak (front) and La Rochelle’s Arthur Retiere in February. The future of the French game is uncertain, as it is in the UK. Photograph: Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images

“The cuts didn’t favour us at all and are more significant than other clubs,” he said, suggesting a 25% cut for one player may also have greater consequences than for another. “However, as a group we realised if we did push back there would potentially be no club to come back to. No one wanted to destroy the club and not have a job.”

Speaking to a player at Perpignan, in France’s second division, clubs there have also told their employees they will receive a salary deduction. Players feel a sense of “being left in the dark” as Perpignan and other clubs in France are “still under the illusion they will be back training in May and they will finish their league games”.

Nevertheless even if the French leagues don’t restart, players there can be encouraged by the chômage system, which helps those unable to sign any contracts after the end of their fixed term to get 12 months’ pay while searching for another job.

For players in the UK, there is much less certainty. Those out of contract are left with a deafening silence because club recruitment has halted. Most clubs are waiting for further news about the government’s help schemes. But rugby’s long-term financial future is not all about cutting players’ wages. The sport has a global market. Cut too far and you risk your best players moving overseas. Too often as a player you hear how, in financial terms, rugby has made no progress over the last decade.

Meanwhile the standard of play, athleticism and skill has continued to increase. The sport is becoming faster and more physical, which has led to careers being shorter. Looking at it in those terms, players have a case for being paid more, not less.

So what about the business of rugby? Players are invested in this as much as anyone; arguably more than most. We have questions that demand answers. Are those running the sport maximising its potential? Is it gathering the best television deals and sponsorship? Is the game understandable, attractive and accessible to viewers?

My friend from Perpignan said rugby, in the UK particularly, is not progressing: “The product selling seems average. In France there is more money being spent on rugby with TV rights being a lot more lucrative. Pro D2 matches are on Thursday and Friday nights, then the Top 14 is played on the weekend. Maybe they can try this with the Championship and Premiership?

“I think overall though, rugby needs to drop the ‘amateurishness’ to it. It needs to be streamlined into a strong business. Look at the finances overall, yes look at the wages, but don’t just look at that.”

His passion is obvious and he speaks for all of us.

 

(All words and photos published with The Guardian)

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