Some people think this weekend’s ‘fourth international’ in Cardiff a cynical exercise in money-making. Others think it outrageous that domestic rugby should ever be played at the same time as international. Still more are up in arms at the idea of an 11-month season. And then there are those who rail at rugby institutions for losing money. Perhaps there are those who do all four.
Trouble is, if we remove the overlap between domestic and international rugby, we have to make the season longer; if we cut the number of games, we have to accept a fall in revenue. And so we keep shoving the pieces around in the impossible puzzle.
These pieces we might refer to, with only mild violations of the laws of tasteful metaphor extension, as the players. There is not a citizen out there who doesn’t hold the sanctity of player welfare to be a self-evident truth, or their ‘No1 priority’, as a rugby institution would put it.
But there is another truth about the modern professional rugby player’s existence that is less loudly proclaimed, if at all. You might catch an administrator mumbling about it behind the back of his hand, but this one goes largely unspoken.
Rugby cannot afford the players’ wages. They are too high.
It’s an uncomfortable truth, because, as much as the average rugby player’s salary is handsome, their careers are short and violent, and we still don’t know the long-term physical consequences (see player welfare). Rugby players are not that well paid, considering.
Nevertheless, so many of the contradictions we keep butting up against boil down to the fact there’s not enough money to pay them. One of the most often resorted-to put-downs of any individual or institution perceived to take a decision on the basis of revenue-generation is that they want to ‘make a quick buck’, but these are often institutions losing millions of pounds a year. How they would love to make a quick buck; they’re trying to stop haemorrhaging them.
There are salary caps to tackle this, but they are inadequate. When they go up, so do the demands of agents. Squads in England are actually shrinking as the salary cap rises. This puts further strain on the welfare question.
The Professional Game Board of England met this week. The salary cap is not expected to rise again for the foreseeable, but one adjustment they might consider is to reframe it so it applies to the average wage across squads of a minimum size. That might help with welfare, but the disparity between revenue and cost will remain. And if BT, say, were to give up rugby as suddenly as they embraced it that disparity in England would equal meltdown.
Player wages could become, if they’re not already, a bigger issue than player welfare. What happens to a sport if it cannot afford itself? For now, as much as a fourth international might infuriate or overlapping weekends grate, they exist to prop up the whole precarious enterprise.