Big Four gain right to compete with French for 'marquee' talent
Each Premiership side will be able to have one player over and above the £4.3m salary cap
The richest clubs in English rugby – Leicester, Saracens, Bath and Northampton – have not succeeded in freeing themselves from their economic chains by abolishing the salary cap, despite a determined attempt to turn the Premiership into a paradise for free-market fundamentalists. They have not even managed to raise the cap to a level where they might match the spending power of the French. The Big Four are celebrating one victory, however, and it could have a major impact.
From the end of next season, each of the 12 elite teams will be able to employ one player over and above the salary cap of £4.26m – a significant move in favour of those clubs able and willing to splash a serious amount of cash. If, for instance, Bath persuade the stellar All Black outside-half Dan Carter to take a sabbatical from New Zealand rugby and play a season at the Recreation Ground in return for a wage of the seven-figure variety, there will be nothing to stop them completing the deal.
"Looking forward, the continuing success of our expansion strategy to 2015 will depend on our development of playing talent to world-class levels, our retention of that talent in England and the continued attraction of some of the world's best players," said the Premier Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty yesterday. "This has been a breakthrough season: each weekend, 68 per cent of players are English-qualified. The clubs have now agreed how best to strike the right balance between investment in playing talent and long-term financial stability."
Contrary to expectation in World Cup year, which is generally seen as a watershed moment for southern hemisphere players seeking big pay days in Europe, the Antipodeans have fought a successful rearguard action by re-signing some of the sport's top names. Richie McCaw, the All Black captain, agreed a new four-year deal with the New Zealand Rugby Union only this week, while a number of leading Wallabies – the brilliant backs Quade Cooper and Adam Ashley-Cooper among them – are staying put in Australia.
Even so, the "marquee performer" arrangement gives the most ambitious English teams enough muscle to compete with the best resourced French clubs – Toulon and Toulouse, Racing Metro and the newly promoted Lyons – while continuing to meet their obligations in producing home-grown contenders for representative rugby. Quite what the Premiership's poor relations, from Newcastle to Wasps, think of this is anyone's guess. Not that anyone will have to guess for long.
Talking of money, Exeter's financial backers are planning to invest another £10m in establishing the club as a major player in the English club game. Most of this money will be spent on improving the already excellent Sandy Park stadium; some of it will be used to buy Premiership shares from Bristol, one of the original members of the top-flight fraternity, now fallen on hard times. This latter move would guarantee the Devonians' increased central funding.
Tony Rowe, very much the driving force behind Exeter's runaway success, plans to float the club as a public limited company at some point before the end of next year. "We find ourselves at a crossroads once more," he said. "Either we can move onwards and upwards or we can wither on the vine and eventually die."
Gordon D'Arcy, the Leinster centre, will miss his side's Magners League final with Munster tomorrow because of an ankle injury suffered during last weekend's Heineken Cup victory over Northampton.
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