Saracens are unlikely to attract at full house to their North London abode for today’s league game with an overmatched and underwhelming band of relegation certainties from London Welsh, but the top brass at the country’s most ambitious club are ever more convinced that professional club rugby in England is ready for an explosion of free-market zealotry.
Edward Griffiths, the chief executive of the 2011 champions, will propose a scrapping of the salary cap in time for next season when the Premiership shareholders next meet in early February.
Supported by the Saracens chairman Nigel Wray and the club’s other major investors, Griffiths believes the 2015 World Cup will leave the club game at a crossroads. He warned yesterday that if large numbers of leading All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks head for French clubs, whose playing budgets are much greater than those here, the chances of a significant hike in income from the next round of Premiership broadcasting negotiations will be greatly reduced.
“We need to take this opportunity to announce ourselves as the most exciting, high-powered league in the world game, and to do that we need to attract the biggest names,” Griffiths said. “Also, we must ensure that English players receive the market rate rather than have their earning potential restricted by an artificial mechanism. We need to release the handbrake, not kill off any hope of growth. The salary cap has served its purpose. Time moves on.”
If, as Griffiths claims, half a dozen Premiership clubs are behind his initiative, the February meeting could be extremely tense. New regulations for next season, including a hike in permitted expenditure to £5.5m and a second “marquee” player to be employed outside the agreed financial limits, were announced just three months ago. A change of course now would infuriate those who argue passionately that the salary cap has been, and continues to be, the key to producing a vibrant, competitive and sustainable elite league.
It would also alarm the Rugby Football Union, which would have good reason to fear a major influx of foreign “mercenaries” – some of whom would command eye-watering salaries by rugby standards, although not, perhaps, as extravagant as the multi-million deal said to have lured the All Black maestro Daniel Carter to Racing Métro.
There are 15 Premiership shareholders and Saracens will need a 75 per cent majority to win the day. They will probably have the support of Bath, Leicester and Northampton – the usual suspects when it comes to any attempted unshackling of financial restraints – but a number of other clubs, including Harlequins, London Irish, Sale and Wasps, are likely to be more cautious. The argument has only just started.
Today’s on-field programme is topped by a couple of fascinating derbies. Gloucester, rarely short of motivation when Bath head for Kingsholm, will be without their England No 8 Ben Morgan, who twanged a hamstring in training. For the visitors, Kyle Eastmond returns at inside centre, relegating Sam Burgess to the bench in the process.
Leicester have the two Test Lion Toms – hooker Youngs and flanker Croft – back in their pack for the trip to Franklin’s Gardens, where Northampton will offer their usual warm welcome. The England centre Luther Burrell is present and correct in the Saints’ back division, while the Samoan scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i has again beaten the England international Lee Dickson to the starting spot.
Wasps, meanwhile, expect more than 25,000 paying customers to watch tomorrow’s game with London Irish – the much-travelled itinerants’ first game at the Ricoh Stadium in Coventry, their new long-term home.Reuse content