Rugby Union: Leicester cut back on win bonuses

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The Independent Online
AS TWO of England's most effective post-war forwards, Peter Wheeler and Dean Richards were never renowned for their generosity on the field of play. They are not especially charitable off it, either. The Allied Dunbar Premiership-winning braves of Leicester, for whom Wheeler is chief executive and Richards rugby manager, have been rewarded for last season's exploits with a 20 per cent reduction in win bonuses - a clear case of the bosses receiving with one hand and taking away with the other.

According to Richards, who appeared at Twickenham yesterday to launch the 1999-2000 Championship in typically lugubrious style, the move will shave something between pounds 75,000 and pounds 100,000 from the Tigers' over-stretched budget and, most importantly, position them safely inside the newly agreed salary cap of pounds 1.8m. "The players initially found it difficult to understand how they could win the title last season and get less in their pay packets this season," conceded the Welford Road icon, "but it's a matter of what's good for the club and good for rugby. They're level-headed people and they've accepted the situation."

The very fact that Leicester, with their 12,000-plus gates and five-figure membership, feel the need to trim their own coat-tails says everything about the parlous financial state of professional club rugby in England. To look at it from the bottom up, rather than the top down, poor old Bedford do not even have any coat-tails to trim. Not for the first time, the long- suffering playing and back-room staff at Goldington Road are waiting for overdue wage cheques.

Happily, they are digging in for the long haul and insist they will fulfil all Premiership obligations until the end of the season. "We've recruited some useful players - Gareth Rees, Andy Gomarsall, Derwyn Jones, Simon Mitchell - and we're looking forward eagerly to our opening match at Bristol tomorrow week," said their management spokesman, Philip August. "We've had our problems, of course, and those problems are on-going to a certain extent. But serious restructuring work has started and some very good people are wholly committed to the cause."

It remains to be seen whether the ameliorative effects of the salary cap trickle down sufficiently quickly to stabilise the likes of Bedford and Sale, another club trapped between a financial rock and a commercial hard place. There is, however, a new reality at large in Premiership boardrooms up and down the country. As Rob Andrew, Newcastle's director of rugby, was quick to assert yesterday, rugby's marketplace is nowhere near as feverish in the aftermath of the Richmond and London Scottish affairs.

"Rugby is like any business - it has its ups and its downs - but I know for a fact that the current expectations of players and their agents are very different from their expectations of 18 months or two years ago," he said. "We certainly have no problem with the wage cap; whether other clubs have a problem will become apparent when they're audited. I'm wholly in favour of bringing some viability into the game and I speak as someone with experience of losing an owner midway through a season."

Premiership officials confirmed that clubs would be allowed to field three foreign players until the end of the World Cup, at which point the limit would revert to two. "People might ask why we are encouraging more overseas players at the expense of home-grown talent, but we consider it very important to maintain the high standard of the competition during a period when many big names will be on World Cup duty," explained Howard Thomas, the acting chief executive of the English Rugby Partnership.

Meanwhile, the organisers of the European Rugby Cup were due to announce details of a new television deal today, with a terrestrial-satellite partnership arrangement between the BBC and British Eurosport the hot favourite. Heavily criticised for their recent sporting losses - not just Des Lynam, but cricket and motor racing as well - BBC executives see rugby as a potential saviour of their flagship Grandstand programme.