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The Breakdown | English rugby must wear salary cap and resist temptation to remove it
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The Breakdown | English rugby must wear salary cap and resist temptation to remove it

They published the annual salary-cap report last week. Premier Rugby has turned this into quite the glossy document, as if to underscore how seriously the concept of the salary cap is taken these days.

Poignantly, this is the first time since You Know What that Saracens finished the season as champions. Thus they were subjected to the extended audit they themselves inspired, whereby the champion club have their emails and text messages forensically imaged and searched. “Saracens should be commended on their approach, support and full compliance,” says the report. Oh, brave new world!

Since its donning in 1999, the cap has endured a troubled history, but each year we are reminded of the five objectives behind it. “Controlling inflationary pressures on clubs’ costs” and “providing a level playing field for clubs” are two entry-level objectives for any salary cap. “Enabling clubs to compete in European competitions” is a troublesome directive, given it pushes in the opposite direction from the others. But that is a price worth paying if the cap succeeds in “ensuring the financial viability of all clubs”. Hmmm.

Where the cap has succeeded unequivocally is in “ensuring a competitive Premiership”. It has almost become a cliche in the past 20 years or so to point out the competitiveness of the Premiership’s mid-table, but the competition has been dominated, broadly speaking, by Leicester and Wasps in the first half of the cap’s history and by Saracens in the second.

That could be changing. The report details how 11 different clubs have made the playoffs in the past six seasons and how last season the Premiership bettered its rival competitions in the north (international and domestic) in tries scored a match (7.02, pipping the United Rugby Championship) and in the percentage of margins of victory within seven points (43%, pipping the Top 14).

This season, though, levels of competitiveness have increased again. Forgive the familiar cliche, but, even by Premiership standards, to have six teams on nine or 10 wins, as we do now with two rounds to play, is remarkable. If Leicester had not let slip a 19-0 lead over Bristol in the last 15 minutes on Saturday, it would be seven teams. As it is, the Tigers lie beneath the six on eight wins, still in with a mathematical chance (just about) of making the playoffs, while Northampton sit above the six on 11. This remains anyone’s title.

After the horrors of last season off the field, these feel like halcyon times in the Premiership. There might even be signs of the national team following suit, having fallen so far from the rugby they played up to and including the 2019 World Cup.

But no one should lose sight of certain realities. The clubs have been releasing their annual accounts over the last few months for the year covered by the latest salary-cap report. This process is reliably something of a downer and has proved no less so this year. The salary cap may have come in to ÂŁ5m in the aftermath of the pandemic, but there is no obvious sign of this translating into improved results on the balance sheets. The current season is the third with the cap at ÂŁ5m. From next season it returns to its pre-pandemic level of ÂŁ6.4m with no obvious justification.

Other than, of course, that objective concerning success in Europe. Before the accountants get to work on the next set of financials from the end of June, the small matter of this weekend’s Champions Cup semi-finals heaves into view, English rugby’s next brush with reality. And the salary cap’s.

To watch Harlequins and Northampton run at each other with abandon at Twickenham over the weekend was to revel in all that is best about English rugby. It just so happens that these two will now appear in this weekend’s semi-finals, English rugby’s best representation this far into the knockout phases since 2020.

Each will now take on the sort of beasts that are beyond the scope of a ÂŁ5m cap. There is a gravitas to Leinster, whom Northampton take on in Dublin on Saturday, and Toulouse, where Harlequins travel on Sunday, that neither side will encounter in the Premiership.

Comparisons between salary caps are difficult. The English cap of £5m can extend in real terms to something closer to £7m, when various allowances are taken into consideration, but that includes all spending on players, including agents’ fees and employer national insurance contributions. The Top 14 salary cap is 10 million euros and does not include the French equivalents.

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The United Rugby Championship does not have a salary cap, but individual countries set their own budgets. The finest minds have not been able to uncover Leinster’s financials, wrapped up as they are in the Irish Rugby Football Union’s accounts.

Cormac Foley passes the ball for LeinsterView image in fullscreen

Some Leinster fans object to the description of their side as “basically the Ireland team”. Why this is so is a mystery. Nobody is suggesting Leinster sit in a darkened room with a free pick of all Ireland’s best players. They produce them. The province has become the most productive rugby nursery in the world. The difference with the English model, if there were such a nursery in England, is that, by and large, they get to keep them.

Northampton and Harlequins will be taking on two of the best teams in the world this weekend, at any level. The hawks in English rugby will use that as an argument to increase the cap again, but if we have learned one thing from the last couple of decades it is some elements in English rugby need protecting from themselves.

The cap must be kept tight. England is so far away from boasting the depth of rugby culture enjoyed by France or the elegance and coherence of the Irish system. For now, the vibrancy of the domestic game on the field is something to enjoy in its own right. But all that could be torn apart by an injudicious doffing of the cap.

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Source: theguardian.com