Wasps, one of the great names in world rugby and among the most successful Premiership teams of the professional era, have been threatened with a winding-up order from the tax authorities over unpaid sums totalling more than £1m – a quarter of their officially sanctioned playing budget. The warning of action by HM Revenue and Customs was issued earlier this month and club officials are now discussing ways of clearing the debt as quickly as possible.
While Mark Rigby, the former Wasps flanker and captain who now serves as executive chairman, insisted yesterday that there was "no question" of the club going to the wall, this development will send a chill wind blowing through the English game. The Londoners, twice European champions and winners of the domestic title on four occasions between 2003 and 2008, may not be the wealthiest of the Premiership's elite sides, but together with Leicester they are comfortably the most respected.
They are not alone in having an uncomfortable time of it with HMRC. A number of clubs have become entangled in complex issues surrounding image rights agreements with leading players. Only last month, Newcastle were in negotiations over exactly how much they owed in respect of commercial arrangements involving some of their biggest box-office attractions: the England outside-half Jonny Wilkinson, the New Zealand prop Carl Hayman, the Australian full-back Matthew Burke and his fellow Wallaby, the back-row forward Owen Finegan. Wilkinson, Burke and Finegan are no longer at Kingston Park, while Hayman is due to leave for the mega-rich French club Toulon at the end of the season, but tax liabilities have a nasty way of lingering even after a player departs.
A spokesman for HMRC refused to comment on specific cases, saying only that the organisation took "a sympathetic approach to both individuals and business that have genuine short-term difficulties in paying the tax they owe". However, the authority has played a high-profile role in recent cases involving major football clubs, not least the Portsmouth affair. Portsmouth's debt to the revenue collectors, a touch over £17m, puts rugby finance in its proper perspective, but senior figures at Premier Rugby Ltd, the elite clubs' umbrella organisation, are known to be concerned by a range of tax affairs affecting their members.
Rigby said he was "entirely comfortable" with Wasps' business position. "A club's financial health can be measured in a number of different ways," he said. "In line with businesses throughout the country, we are in dialogue with HMRC throughout the year, and as far as we are concerned we're confident we can make regular payments.
"In terms of where the business is really at, we have an enormous amount of positive things ahead of us: a highly profitable Premiership match with Bath at Twickenham on Saturday, a home Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final for which we did not budget at the start of the season and the possibility of a place in the Premiership semi-finals. We also have ambitious plans to move to a new stadium in High Wycombe, for which we have strong support from the local council."
This weekend's St George's Day game should help the bank balance: well over 60,000 spectators are anticipated. However it has not been an easy campaign for the Londoners, despite their recent surge in form. They parted company with their recently-appointed chief executive, Paul Harrison, last week and will soon lose two of their best-known internationals, the outside-half Danny Cipriani and the wing Paul Sackey, to lucrative contracts overseas. The England Saxons captain George Skivington, one of the best second-row forwards in the country, is also about to leave, for Leicester.
At least they are not fighting for their competitive honour at the wrong end of the Premiership table. Leeds, promoted at the end of last season and widely expected to return from whence they came, will flick two fingers in the direction of their doubters if they beat Worcester at Headingley this weekend, and according to their head coach, the World Cup-winning England flanker Neil Back, this would be every bit as much of an achievement as the capture of the Webb Ellis Trophy in Sydney seven years ago.
"We were one of the favourite for the World Cup in 2003 and had almost unlimited resources," said Back, who has worked a minor miracle in Yorkshire alongside the director of rugby Andy Key. "This is different. Not many people gave us a chance of staying up."Reuse content