‘We can’t afford Skelton and Vunipola,’ said Paul Gustard after Harlequins’ defeat to Saracens in March. ‘I don’t know who can. Actually, I do…’
This is Paul Gustard, Harlequins head coach – and for 10 years a Saracen. If anyone knows the state of Saracens’ wage bill, he should. Throwaway comment or not, his quip reveals more about that than any statement from Premier Rugby Limited or Saracens themselves.
Nothing will come of this latest salary-cap investigation, just as nothing came of the last in 2015, or the secret one before that, when around half the clubs were in breach. Which year was that? The one before the salary cap suddenly and for no obvious reason nearly doubled in one fell swoop after nine years of sensible containment (2008).
The salary cap has no teeth for as long as the clubs held to it care nothing for each other or the growth of their sport. The Premiership has long adhered to the credo of every club for itself. Hence the spending of money they don’t have for the past 20 years or so.
There is no sign of a cooling down. Why would anyone expect that? Throw a tiger extra meat, and the meat will be devoured indiscriminately. Thus the clubs of the Premiership run their business.
For the first time, the collective operating loss of the 13 who hold shares in PRL has exceeded £40m. Worcester, for reasons yet to be revealed, are late with their accounts, which is never a good sign, so the current tally of £42m does not include their loss. That was the best part of £7m last time. There is no reason to think it will be any less this.
So let’s call it £50m.
Ah, but everything is different now. CVC, the private equity firm, have become the first entity to place a value on ownership of PRL’s central revenue streams. They rate it at £200m for a 27% share. One shudders to think how much further the clubs’ ever-popping eyeballs will bulge with this fresh injection.
Rational folk have wondered what the endgame is. One theory, consistent with that credo of selfishness, is they are waiting for the weakest to fall away. This will happen eventually. Yorkshire Carnegie – or Leeds to you and me – quietly announced this week they had failed to find the requisite sugar daddy. That’s another former Premiership club gone.
Look at the revenue figures in the latest accounts to determine the next weakest. Sale turned over the least at £9.3m, Irish £9.5m and Newcastle £10.9m. Worcester will be a little higher. Bristol (£5.3m) were in the Championship – and they are backed by a billionaire, anyway. The rest are at or near the £20m mark.
So Leeds are gone already, with Sale and Newcastle among those struggling to keep pace. In other words, the North, where football and league are so entrenched, is where the Premiership will wither. Strategically disastrous, but there has never been much strategy in the jungle.