Nick Auterac: The Squeeze on English Rugby
You don’t need to dive too deep into the comments on a team’s social media page to find a recurring theme that conveys the fans’ feelings about what they think is going wrong. It’s even worse when there is the added weight of expectation. England are a team that were less than 80 minutes away from winning the previous World Cup and they won the Six Nations a few months later. Yet, by their own recent standards they are now under-performing. To make matters worse their current results are seemingly only going in one direction after a first ever loss to a tier 2 nation.
‘#BorthwickOut’ poured out over social media as Twitter users made it a trending hashtag after England’s loss against an impressive Fijian side that looked as ready as they’ve ever been to do some serious damage at a World Cup. Even ex-players and current pundits have hailed Borthwick as the deciding factor in England’s decline in performances and plaster it all over their own social media pages. I won’t name names and I can only assume either they’ve been out of the game for so long that they don’t understand the full status of the English game or they’re just putting out a tweet, an X status, whatever Elon Musk wants to call it to get a bit of traction on their social media page with something semi bold and the first thing they can think of.
Steve Borthwick has inherited a team that was destined to head in this direction after a distinctively average autumn 2022 campaign and a sub-par Six Nations tournament that resulted in a record home defeat to our closest friends across the channel in France. Not even the eccentric rugby mastermind Eddie Jones or the calm and incredibly knowledgeable Steve Borthwick surrounded by any coaching team could have dug them out of this inevitable hole. I’m sure anyone that supports English rugby is asking the same question, ‘why?’. Especially when these coaches are backed by the wealthiest union in world rugby. Is the money being spent in the right place? What is clear is it is hard to see it anything being rectified in the next couple of weeks.
Stranger things have happened… Look back to England’s second game in the 2007 World Cup. After a 36-0 defeat against South Africa, England fought back and succumbed to a narrow loss in the final. Matthew Tait came within inches of the try line and Mark Cueto’s boot kissed the touchline which resulted in the infamous disallowed try. These moments could have swung the game. England would have been the victors and secured back-to-back World Cup titles. However, having seen what’s happened to the Premiership clubs in recent years, England’s predicament has been a long time coming and I believe the problems in English rugby are so grave there won’t be a last-ditch hoorah effort at this World Cup to pull through and swing a few results in their favour like they did in the same country 16 years ago.
Three clubs with a plethora of history have folded within one season. This has left the market saturated with great rugby players which is driving down the value of others. Top players at these clubs are having to pick up their careers and lives and move around the country to whichever club will take them. Money is evidently not there in the Premiership. Most clubs act at a loss or just about break even. Budgets - rightly so - need to be cut or we’ll end up with a dejected situation of further clubs having to fold.
The clubs that remain still need to compete against the French giants and now the massively thriving teams within the URC with the addition of top South African clubs and Irish teams that are reflecting their success within the domestic competition on the international stage. The players once playing in the Premiership are being offered a fraction of the salaries they were previously on and top overseas talent or those with no interest of playing for England are leaving to play abroad. Teams still need the likes of the Courtney Lawes and the Owen Farrells within their squad so that they remain capable of competing with the top teams in Europe. Their salaries will remain competitive with the stars of the French and URC leagues. However, the middlemen on the salaries that are lying somewhere between the Itojes and the academy young bucks are starting to have their contracts halved or even quartered.
If you’re a player within those two bands of the most valuable players to the lower end of the pay spectrum, about 6/7 months into the season you’ll receive a contract renewal in which the club sends on an email to your agent with an attached contract proposal. A lot of these are coming in at half the pay of what these players were on the previous year. The money simply isn’t there for these clubs, they’re not allowed to be over the cap even if it is there. We all know what happened to Saracens a few years back… Therefore clubs are happy to take a chance and see if they can bring someone else in on half the amount or back a young academy prodigy to kick on at even less of a cost to the club. If a French team in either of the top two leagues shows some interest, says they’ll pay significantly more and it becomes a no brainer to take the latter option. If you do this to 10-15 players in a season you’ll end up with a squad that remains unsettled and being filled by players that weren’t of the previous quality.
Over the course of the past few seasons, not helped by COVID, the squads have slowly started to deplete in quality. It is incremental and almost unnoticeable to the everyday fan. A few of the top players that play week in week out for teams that uphold the league have started to head overseas. Not only for better finances but also for a better standard of rugby. Players who I’ve played with in recent years at Northampton Saints have left. Teimana Harrison moved to a second division French team, Dave Ribbans to Toulon or Matt Proctor to Australia. These guys are just a few great examples of massively pivotal players within the team and are of international quality. This in turn has ever so slightly decreased the standard of the league and has resulted in the players who play for the national team playing in fewer competitive matches each week with fewer quality players to learn from.
The quality of the league has and always will be the greatest reflection of the state of the national team. Go back a decade and France finished an embarrassing 6th place in the Six Nations followed by a pretty tough time for the following five years being a constant in the mid to bottom of the table. The leagues’ top club teams were paying over and above all other club teams therefore lining their domestic teams with super star internationals. Just look back to Jonny Wilkinson’s Toulon team of that era and you’ll get the idea. Their national team suffered as a result as their national players struggled to get top game time.
Fast forward ten years and the French have implemented new rules. Each side must have at least 16 JIFF (French qualified, essentially) players in each match day 23 in the Top 14. This has allowed for a perfect balance of home-grown players along with foreign player exposure to create the best rugby league in the world resulting in sponsors wanting to pump money in, substantially higher TV rights than the Premiership and their national team being current favourites for the World Cup title. England and the Premiership don’t quite have the same luxuries.
The Premiership mirrors how the national team looks at the moment. A few years behind, lacking structure, looking tired and being out muscled by almost all the teams that they come up against. England looked lost out there. This is similar to how the club teams looked in the season just gone by against the French teams like Toulouse or La Rochelle or the cohesiveness of the Irish teams such as Leinster or Munster.
The salary cap is due to be increased in a couple of years, however that will only aid teams that are financially able to such as Saracens or Bristol. It may end up leaving others with a similar fate to Worcester, Wasps or London Irish. So how can we improve the current state of English rugby? Do we give the teams with the wealthiest owners the green light to spend the money needed to go and compete? Let them sign all of the best talent and create a few super teams in England. Or do we keep the league competitive, fair and slowly try to improve the teams gradually over the course of the next few years with the continued frustration of probably the clubs and England fan base? I know I’d rather never see any more friends and fellow players going through the turmoil of a club going under.
To not be involved in the state of the Premiership and having only just played in the league I can only talk from a player’s experience. I truly do hope there’s someone with power that has a plan to rectify this.