A trying time

CURIOUS times for English domestic rugby union. The Guinness Premiership is enjoying one of its most intriguing title races in memory, just as its big stars are being tempted away by big-money moves to France.

Wasps have confirmed that three of their England stars – James Haskell, Riki Flutey and Tom Palmer will start next season in the Super 14.

Centre Flutey is swapping Adams Park for Brive to join up with international team-mate Andy Goode, while flanker Haskell and lock Palmer will be wearing whatever surreal variation of pink Stade Francais decide to turn out in.

Those who know more about rugby union than I do are certain that this will not be the last of the exodus. Players can double or treble their earnings by moving across the Channel – and the chances are they will play in front of bigger crowds, too.

The Super 14 has more money to chuck at players than the Premiership right now, for three reasons:
1) The French club game is benefiting from a new bumper TV deal, which dwarfs the one their English counterparts recently signed with Sky and Setanta.
2) Sterling’s slump against the euro has made France a more attractive destination than England for those Aussies and All Blacks planning a move to the Northern hemisphere.
3) The Super 14, unlike the Premiership, has no salary cap.

Inevitably, it is the salary cap that is coming under scrutiny. Bath chief executive Bob Calleja recently called on Premiership clubs to be given more freedom to manage their own financial affairs – although he stopped well short of calling for the cap to be scrapped. He knew that wasn’t an option, because money is so tight at the top of the English club game.

Indeed, Premier Rugby, the umbrella body for the top flight’s 12 clubs, had considered cutting the squad cap from £4m to £3.5m for next season in the light of the recent economic downturn. But, perhaps mindful of trying to reduce a cross-Channel exodus, the clubs threw that plan out. The cap will now stay at £4m per team for the next two seasons.

There is hardly scope to increase it, as Premiership clubs cannot afford to. Indeed, some may struggle to find the money to spend up to the £4m limit. Gloucester, Leicester and Northampton were the only top-flight clubs to make a profit last season. Most are expected to make heavy losses again this term.

Bottom club Bristol have suffered the most public financial troubles this season, with their very existence called into doubt over Christmas. But others will have watched events at the Memorial Ground hoping they are not about to follow the same path.

It’s a shame that the Premiership is in such financial trouble, because its title race is becoming utterly absorbing. The twin powerhouses of Leicester and Wasps are nowhere to be seen as Gloucester, London Irish, Sale and Bath hog the top four spots.

Of those four, only Sale have been crowned champions since the English club game went professional in 1997. There is every chance that this season’s champions, whoever they are, will be breaking new ground.

Such an open race, though, will be a small consolation if the long-term health of the club game in this country suffers. Even the banks can’t magic money out of thin air any more, so it’s ludicrous to expect our rugby clubs to do it.

The imminent departures of Flutey, Haskell and Palmer will undoubtedly weaken the Premiership. But a weaker domestic game is the only option for long-term survival right now.

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