The battle to avoid relegation from the Guinness Premiership has been the most open for years, with a third of the 12 clubs still in danger of the drop with three weekends of matches to go. One out of Worcester and the Premiership's trio of northern clubs – Sale Sharks, Newcastle Falcons and Leeds Carnegie – will go down and our analysis shows that it is not just the financial hit of dropping into the Championship which is worrying. A double-whammy effect has emerged in which the mere fear of relegation is causing top players to scarper to other clubs.
A share of the spoils
Leeds Carnegie are billing next Sunday's home match with Worcester as the "million pound game", a catchy title concealing the complicated shareholdings of clubs in the Premiership. It used to be that a club had to spend eight consecutive seasons in the division to achieve the maximum holding of A and B Premiership shares. Worcester successfully applied for the process to be "accelerated" and are now full shareholders alongside 10 of the other 11 clubs, each receiving an equal cut of central funding from sponsors and broadcasters, currently about £2m per club and rising. Leeds also had their shareholding "accelerated" but need one more season in the Premiership to become full shareholders, and they reckon staying up will be worth at least an extra £1m per season which would be a huge boost to their budget. A relegated club loses shares worth 40 per cent of central funding. This is balanced by a parachute payment of £800,000 but only for one season. "The hurt would be in the second season if you didn't get straight back up," said Worcester's general manager, Charlie Little. If Leeds go down they forfeit 55 per cent of funding.
A sign of the times
Leeds' director of rugby, Andy Key, says it is "a fact of life" that their young stars Calum Clark, Joe Ford and Scott Armstrong have already signed for Northampton for next season. "You have to accept that, being bottom of the league, Northampton or Leicester will be more enticing," he said. "We are trying to build a club that guys stick with, come what may, and we've been heartened that Hendre Fourie and Scott Barrow have said they would stay with us even if we went down." But he added: "If someone's out of contract, you'd lose them."
Newcastle have already lost Mark Sorenson, Rob Miller and Tom Biggs to higher-placed clubs for next season, and Carl Hayman to Toulon – on top of the last two years' asset-stripping of Phil Dowson, Mathew Tait, Jonny Wilkinson, Toby Flood, Jamie Noon, Lee Dickson and Geoff Parling.
Sale are losing the scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth to Saracens and though the England players Mark Cueto, Tait and Andrew Sheridan are on long contracts, would they want to play second division rugby in the season preceding the 2011 World Cup?
Worcester have dealt with the threat by offering Premiership salaries to players including the England fly-half Andy Goode. "We have no reason to believe Andy won't be with us next season, whatever division we are in," said Little. They tempted the Ireland flanker Neil Best from Northampton with a three-year deal. But the England Saxons back-rower Tom Wood is moving to Saints. "A player's cycle is not that long," said Little. "Tom is looking for Heineken Cup rugby and England honours. We have to pay more than the market rate to get players in, and rely more on our academy."
A worrying development
Sale's owner, Brian Kennedy, said: "If the worst was to happen and we did go down, my commitment to the club would not change." But the reality is a drop in attendances and decreased revenues from hospitality and sponsorship after the loss of TV coverage.
Cutbacks and job losses are inevitable. Many back-office staff at Leeds have a dual role with the rugby league side, but there are 18 employed solely on the union team. Key warned: "We would need to keep the off-field team if the club is serious about getting back up and developing elite athletes."
Worcester have 20 people in the coaching set-up, 55 players in the senior and academy squads, and 50 "non-rugby" employees. The off-field business is thriving but there could be cuts in casual labour on match-days and the subsidised bus service for fans.
Sale have around 100 staff overall, and their new chairman, Harvey Samson, has "a vision of a highly competitive team... playing attractive rugby in a stadium that we can all be proud of". But attendances have fallen at Edgeley Park and Newcastle's Kingston Park, while Worcester have had only two sold-out matches this season.
Remaining fixtures Newcastle Falcons (9th place): today v Leicester (h); 23 April v Sale (a); 8 May v Wasps (h). Sale Sharks (10th): 23 April v Newcastle (h); 8 May v Harlequins (a). Leeds Carnegie (11th): today v London Irish (a); 25 April v Worcester (h); 8 May v Bath (a). Worcester Warriors (12th): 25 April v Leeds (a); 8 May v Gloucester (h).