England’s early World Cup exit comes at a difficult time for English rugby union. An increasing number of players are being lured away to France’s Top 14 league, where the salary cap is significantly higher than that of the Premiership rugby clubs’. To combat this, Premiership Rugby has put in place a programme for steadily raising the salary cap from the current £5 million a year to £7 million in the 2017/18 season.
Part of their reasoning for this is to ‘drive the next phase of growth in English club and international rugby’. England are one of only two international teams (the other being New Zealand) who don’t allow players who play in other countries to play for the national team. This is a controversial topic within the sport. On the one hand, keeping the top players in England with the promise of international rugby will protect the quality of the Premiership and give the RFU better access to English players. On the other, deliberately not selecting world-class players such as Toulon’s Steffon Armitage was one of the hottest of topics as England struggled to compete at the breakdown with Messers Pocock and Hooper. With the average playing professional playing career being just eight years many potential England squad members will look to make as much money as they can in the French league during what is becoming an increasingly short career.
England’s failure at this World Cup, making them the first team in history to go out in the group stages as hosts, has piled even more pressure on Premiership Rugby to close the gap on the French salary cap of £8.6 million. The new four year deal with BT Sport, worth over £280 million, makes this increasingly likely.
It isn’t an issue that is just limited to the Premiership. As discussed in my previous Blacks blog, the Pacific nations have lost a large proportion of players to lucrative contracts in France. In Wales, fly-half Rhys Priestland recently announced an 18-month break from international rugby in order to play in England. This could potentially bring to an end his international career and leave Wales lacking in depth for the pivotal fly-half position.
Taulupe Faletau looked all set to move from Welsh side Newport Gwent Dragons to Premiership club Bath but this was blocked by the Welsh Rugby Union (“WRU”) and head coach Warren Gatland. Wales currently allow two ‘wildcard’ players, which are those who play their rugby outside of Wales. However, the WRU stated that ‘Taulupe’s status as a player and importance as a role model means we would like him to be playing his rugby here’. This is an interesting contrast to the players from the Pacific nations, who are often effectively encouraged to retire from international rugby with the financial incentives from the clubs far outweighing the pride of playing for their nation (and the diminutive financial rewards that the Pacific nations can barely afford).
With the next Rugby World Cup in Japan four years away it is hard to predict how the Clubs versus Country conflict will pan out over the coming seasons. It would not surprise many if players took a sabbatical from the international scene and plied their trade for a couple of seasons overseas and then returned to their respective countries in the build up to Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup.