Rugby risks becoming a different ball game

The Premiership could replicate football's four-club oligarchy with a new salary cap that benefits the richer clubs, writes Chris Hewett
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It is not easy to imagine Kevin Keegan as a rugby man: he would not have been a fat lot of use in the line-out, and even at scrum-half, a position specifically designed for the vertically challenged, his temperament would have worked against him. Remember the anti-Manchester United diatribe a few years back? Had he lost his rag like that against the All Blacks – or even against those amateur teams who draw their players from the less salubrious areas of Gloucester – he would have been left to contemplate life as a public laughing stock from his hospital bed.

Yet the Newcastle United manager said one thing recently that should have been of compelling interest to union folk. "This league [the Premier League] is in danger of becoming one of the most boring great leagues in the world," he opined. "The top four next year will be the same top four as this year. We're a million miles away from challenging for the title but if my owner backs me, we want to try to finish fifth and top the other, mini-league."

There is no "mini-league" in the Premiership. Not yet, at least. Since it opened for business 11 years ago, five clubs have ended the regular season at the head of the table (as opposed to three in football over the same span), and 11 sides have finished in the top four, a feat managed by only seven teams in football. Not to put too fine a point on it, 38 of the 44 top-four positions available in the Premier League since the start of the 1997-98 campaign have been occupied by the quartet of usual suspects: Manchester Utd, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, with the first two of those holding their places each and every time. In the Premiership, no club – not even Leicester or Wasps – has achieved that kind of grinding, spirit-sapping consistency.

The fact that 61 per cent of the 18 clubs to play top-flight rugby have been good enough, at some stage or other, to make the top four, is worthy of celebration. It certainly beats football's record of seven out of 37, or 19 per cent, into the nearest cocked hat. But is it worthy of protection? If it is – and precious few people have been heard to argue that the unpredictability of the Premiership is a bad thing rather than a good one – why is it that the current trend is towards empowerment of the wealthy, rather than equality of opportunity for all, irrespective of financial clout?

At the urgings of the likes of Leicester, who have more season-ticket holders than most clubs have supporters, the salary cap covering the elite division of English rugby will be raised from £2.2m to £4m next season – small beer indeed in football terms, but a very significant increase for rugby. So significant, in fact, that clubs with limited resources are finding it next to impossible to attract "name" recruits.

Bristol, for instance, are most unlikely to spend anywhere near £4m on players' wages, for the very good reason that they do not have anything like £4m available. As a result, Richard Hill, their director of rugby, is recruiting from National League One clubs, largely in the south-west of the country, rather than from the southern hemisphere's Super 14 competition. Worcester, blessed with a hugely enthusiastic benefactor, have signed the Wallaby full-back Chris Latham, while Saracens, armed with a board said to be worth something in the region of a billion, are chasing the All Black outside-half Daniel Carter. Hill, meanwhile, must make do with the likes of Sam Alford, a half-back from Launceston.

Allied to this is the recent, entirely unnecessary change to the European structure, again driven by the likes of Leicester and Wasps – the most successful clubs in England. Instead of a "blind" draw for the pool stage of the Heineken Cup, which regularly produced round-robin contests of considerable grandeur and ensured that this season's final round featured 12 "live" games out of 12, there will now be a seeding system dictated by rankings based on performance stretching back four seasons. As things now stand, Leicester cannot be drawn with Toulouse, while Wasps cannot be paired with Munster. Good for them, bad for everyone else.

Football followers frequently point to the role played by Champions League money in creating the self-perpetuating elite that now dominates the English club game and threatens to turn it into a world-class cure for amnesia. The Heineken Cup generates loose change by comparison – indeed, its inability to produce hard cash for those who perform in it led the English contingent to threaten a boycott as recently as two years ago – but with television contracts about to be renegotiated and public interest growing faster than Pinocchio's nose, the medium-term commercial prospects are mouthwatering. If the new money goes to those who have lots of it already, the union game in England could end up looking uncannily like football's kid brother.

Sadly for the sporting purists who rather liked the Premiership's embrace of the egalitarian principle, financial muscle always gets its way in dictating the course of "progress". While Mark McCafferty, the highly capable chief executive of the top-flight clubs' umbrella organisation Premier Rugby, insists that television revenues will continue to be distributed equally and that there will be no serious move towards a market free of all restraints in the foreseeable future, he also acknowledges the mood of the moment.

"It is not unfair to suggest that the momentum behind the increase in the salary cap came from what you might call the wealthier clubs," he said, adding that the spending limit would be reassessed towards the end of next year and could rise again in 2010-11. "There will always be clubs in different stages of development; certainly, it's unrealistic to think that everyone can get to the same stage at the same time. As a consequence, you're bound to get some clubs saying, 'We don't have this sort of money to spend' and others saying, 'We do have it, so why shouldn't we spend it?' "This is something we have to manage. We have a financial model we think is working for us, one that has produced a level of competitiveness and unpredictability that Premier League football cannot match. But if we don't move that model forward, the pressures on it will become intolerable, to the extent that the model might collapse.

"So yes, we're raising the cap because a good proportion of the Premiership are keen to push on with their businesses. It's a significant rise – not as significant as some say, because a lot of allowances that allowed clubs to spend rather more than the current limit will be removed when we step up to £4m, but it's still an increase of 20 per cent or so. If some can't go there, we'll have to live with it. It's the way of the world."

During this season's Heineken Cup pool stage, Bristol, among the smallest spenders in the Premiership and one of a minority of clubs who can legitimately claim to be sticking to the current salary cap rules, beat Stade Français, the Parisian team financed by the media mogul Max Guazzini. It is routinely said that, like Toulouse, they splash out upwards of €20m (£15.9m) a season on players' wages, so the West Countrymen were quite justified in celebrating long and hard. But the Heineken Cup took a terrible toll on Bristol's season. Hill, their coach, feared from the start that the inevitable injury toll would undermine performance in the bread-and-butter Premiership, and so it proved.

They have more to fear next season, for redevelopment work at the Memorial Ground means they will play their home games away in Newport. "The next couple of years are critical for us," said their chief executive, David White. "We're committed to building a state-of-the-art stadium, because history tells that better facilities are crucial to lasting success. In three years, I think Bristol will be very well resourced and extremely competitive. The important thing is to make the best of our immediate situation, and we're doing a lot of work to ensure we're in a reasonable position when the new stadium opens."

Under the circumstances, then, Bristol could have done without this hike in the salary cap. Twice in the last few weeks, they have been priced out of the market by Gloucester, who beat them to the signatures of the Bath centre Olly Barkley and the Llanelli Scarlets midfielder Matthew Watkins, and with the likes of newly promoted Northampton driving the market through the roof, there is precious little chance of an improvement in recruitment fortunes. Hill continues to work miracles for them on a limited budget, but there is surely a limit to the number of loaves-and-fishes stunts he can pull.

"Look, we don't want to see the better resourced clubs being disadvantaged: as a league, we can't afford to stand still," White said. "What we want – and we put our case forward very strongly in Premier Rugby meetings – is the salary cap to be meaningful. It has to be a level playing field in terms of people sticking to the rules. If the new cap is properly policed and strongly managed, it will still be effective."

And if it isn't enforced? No one seriously believes that more than five clubs, including relegated Leeds, have behaved themselves this season. For the sake of the game they profess to love, the rest had better start behaving. The alternative is football, and its four-team oligarchy.