Bristol's latest descent into financial turmoil – the grand old club's third brush with calamity in a decade – is causing serious concern amongst the movers and shakers of Premiership rugby, who fear the weakest of the 12 elite teams will struggle to survive in the increasingly Arctic economic climate. The West Countrymen deny they are close to calling in the administrators, but their recent public plea for new investment has yet to bear fruit while fortunes on the field continue to worsen.
The decision of Premier Rugby, the top-flight clubs' umbrella organisation, to raise the salary cap by some 25 per cent to more than £4m was always likely to have a serious effect on Bristol's capacity to compete; indeed, their director of rugby, Richard Hill, indicated at the start of the season that he would have to make do and mend with a £3m limit. Yesterday, the chief executive of Premier Rugby, Mark McCafferty, openly admitted that Bristol are "one of the clubs who cannot operate at the salary cap we have in place".
Some Premiership clubs – most notably Bath, who are exploring the long-term possibility of a ground-sharing arrangement in a new stadium situated between the two cities – are keen to help Bristol stay afloat, but the board members of Premier Rugby have yet to establish how this might legitimately be done without compromising the competitive integrity of the league.
"We will seek to help where we can, but each individual club has to run itself financially," McCafferty said. "I expect to see some clarity on Bristol's position over the next few weeks. Our focus at the moment is to make sure Bristol raise the funds they need. There are ways of getting them through this and I'm sure those ways will be found."
Ten years ago, the Bristol chairman Arthur Holmes, who had helped foot the bills for many seasons, put the newly relegated club into administration. Almost simultaneously, they lost control of their Memorial Ground home when Bristol Rovers FC bought them out for a measly £10,000. Malcolm Pearce, a local businessman and dedicated rugby enthusiast, rescued the club in the days leading into the 1998-99 campaign, but things turned sour again in 2003, when Bristol paid a return visit to the Second Division, amid controversy over a proposed merger with Bath and another mass exodus of coaches and players. Now, the mood is bleak once more as supporters await the latest batch of departures.
Meanwhile, the Sale director-of-rugby-in-waiting, Kingsley Jones, will begin his effort to retain the services of the brilliant All Black midfielder Luke McAlister, who is considering his future at the club. Tempted both by a return to New Zealand and a big-money move to France, the goal-kicking centre is expected to make a decision before the end of next month.
"Luke is probably the most gifted player in the world and he has to look at his options, but I think he wants to stay here if he decides against going home," said the head coach, who will succeed Philippe Saint-André in the top job in May. "It is simply a matter of whether we can compete with the French clubs. I just need to see what kind of money will be needed to keep him."