Cash-strapped game in danger of losing its Voyce
Former England winger does not want to retire but accepts he may have to because, much to his surprise, no one wants him
The new money set to reach Aviva Premiership clubs from their improved television deal with BT from next season will not make much difference to Tom Voyce.
The former England wing is on rugby's equivalent of the dole: unable to find a job since his contract at Gloucester ended in the summer, despite being fully fit, not long into his 30s and with the experience of winning eight club trophies and nine caps for his country.
Voyce's story is not strictly of the hard-luck variety but is a sign of the times. ''If my career has to stop, I've achieved more than most people in it,'' says the 31-year-old from Cornwall now living in London and looking for work. ''But it's the way it would finish that is frustrating. I grew up thinking 'why would I ever want to retire?' I now know it may be because there isn't a contract on the table for you anywhere.''
In looking for the reasons why a sport that has just trumpeted a 50 per cent hike in TV fees has no room for him, Voyce quotes several factors, including ageism and the disappearance of club loyalty, an unequal distribution of money between wealthy teams and the rest, and the influx of players from abroad.
It was back in January, towards the end of a three-year contract with Gloucester, after successful stints with Bath and Wasps, that Voyce got wind from the then head coach Bryan Redpath that ''budgets had changed''. Voyce's contract was not renewed.
His hunt for a new club began, and the obvious question is: what would he accept? Voyce prefers not to state his last salary at Gloucester, though a guestimate would be around £150,000. ''I've got two or three years left in my career,'' he says, ''and I am willing to look at a lower salary. That said, I don't want to tread water. I love the game but it is about getting bashed about every day. There's no point picking up a 45k salary if it meant never playing, or not being challenged. I would prefer to go straight for a different job and build a new salary.
''The point is I have not even had an offer. I find it bizarre. I'm there with a wealth of experience but I'm not going to be able to give back, to give a youngster the information that I got given.''
Voyce reveals that the majority of Premiership clubs – including, he believes, Gloucester – are not spending up to the salary cap, which is a maximum £4.5million, plus the wages of one high-earning "excluded" player. ''Most clubs are spending instead on their PR and marketing,'' Voyce says. ''They are putting it into the back office just to make sure they survive as a club because they're not getting the bums on seats. Revenue is tight.'' And he is in the worst position as a wing. ''The top four or five teams – the Leicesters, Saracens, Northamptons, Harlequins – can afford to look for experience in every position,'' he says. ''The others are focusing on the spine of the team: the forward pack and maybe if they're lucky the nine, 10, 15.'' Wing is seen as a position to be filled by youngsters from the academies, or overseas recruits. Going full-time in 2000, Voyce earned £40,000, whereas he says today's academy players may receive £80,000-£90,000 ''without having achieved anything. Academy players cost time and money and clubs are chucking money at them because they are scared of losing them.''
Voyce has faced a frustrating time searching for new employers. Brive and Dax in France backed out of possible deals when one was relegated and the other not promoted. London Welsh had discussions with him before spending what they had on two French props and waiting on other forwards becoming available from South Africa.
''I believe we have a huge talent pool in England, amazing players, sometimes beating even what New Zealand have,'' says Voyce. ''But some southern hemisphere players coming here are not as good as what we have. [England international] Luke Narraway, for me, was one of the best No8s I've played with, but we lost him to France. The talent here should be looked at first before going abroad. You do get one-offs like [Harlequins' All Black fly-half] Nick Evans who come in, stick at it, and do help the Premiership. Some of them, you think, 'is it necessary?'
''I felt I produced and gave a lot in my three years at Gloucester, but the loyalty card has gone out of the game. It's a business now, and people make business decisions.''
Voyce has checked the statistics. He has the most Premiership appearances as a back (217), is fourth on the all-time try-scoring list and has a ''minimal" injury record: the longest spell inactive was three months with a knee injury in early 2008. He is visiting the gym most days and applauds Warren Gatland, once his coach at Wasps, for saying that Jonny Wilkinson is not ''too old'' for the Lions at 33, but says this is a minority view. ''Rugby is very ageist," says Voyce. ''I am seeing guys retiring when they still have lots to offer. And we're more ageist towards backs than forwards.''
The Rugby Players' Association say 132 senior and academy players from the Premiership were out of contract at the end of last season and 62 are still looking for a club.
''I am not being arrogant,'' says Voyce, ''but I think I am the first high-profile Premiership player that's going to be without a club. So the game is changing.''
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