The Oxford dictionary definition of a crisis is a time of danger. Alternatively just listen to the words of Damian Hopley, chief executive of the Rugby Players’ Association, as he seeks to protect his members’ livelihoods. “Can clubs survive until Christmas or into next year? Can some unions survive? It’s a very stark situation. The foundations of sport have been completely rocked and we’re now in a position where we’re starting to understand the real impact.”
Hopley is not exaggerating for effect. The players he represents are trapped in a nightmare that rugby union can ill afford. The Covid-19 situation is affecting everyone in the country to some degree but give it another three months and, without the return of crowds or matchday income, we will be discussing much of professional rugby in the past tense. Not just the odd struggling Premiership club but almost all of it, save for a lucky few with a billionaire writing endless blank cheques.
Such is the reality increasingly confronting even the country’s leading players. Without some element of government help – or a change of tack on allowing even a few thousand people into stadiums – 25 years of work on building a viable professional structure will crumble inside a few months. Hopley likens it to “a typhoon sweeping through the sport” and the metaphor does not feel misplaced.
Because what will be left if rugby is simply left to weather the storm alone? Very little of value and Hopley’s members can already start to feel the building shaking. “Professional sport isn’t always a model that stacks up and it was the philanthropy of the club owners that was holding it all together,” says the former Wasps and England centre. “And when their businesses start being affected as adversely as they have been, there’s a seismic issue. A lot of players are getting very nervous about what the future holds. No one can look into a crystal ball and say exactly where it is going to end up, hence the call for government support.”
Despite the wage cuts already widely agreed across the game, Hopley also fears the number of professional players in these islands is about to drop significantly. “We’re very fortunate to have wealthy investors but the noose is tightening in every aspect. Talking to players the reality is starting to sink in that sport is not immune to what is going on. We’re not talking about the unemployment figures of the 1980s but we won’t be far off by the time this all stabilises.
“As a player’s union our ultimate goal is for players to be in jobs – and protected in those jobs as best as possible. My personal concern is that the number of jobs may well diminish if the sport is ravaged as is currently being forecast. As Stephen Vaughan of Wasps said in the Guardian, there will come a point when people say: “I can’t keep spending money without any return so, regrettably, I’m going to have to walk away.”
The situation, Hopley acknowledges, is even worse at Championship clubs where players have been staring down the barrel for years. Their Premiership cousins are now discovering how unsettling that is. “Sometimes professional sport can be seen as a dirty word and everyone thinks people are on telephone number salaries like in other sports. Well that isn’t the case in rugby. While the players are fortunate to be doing what they’re doing there is genuine concern when you hear what the people holding the purse strings are saying. This is not idle chit-chat, it’s a very stark warning of what may come if fans can’t get back in to see games live. Steve Diamond at Sale has talked about catastrophe and devastation. These are biblical words and
they’re not being casually thrown around.”
Even if there is some kind of bail-out, reckons Hopley, it could take years to repair what the RPA calls the “irrevocable damage” currently looming. “It is hard to say the gravy train has left the station but there’s a much greater sense of reality about what this looks like. The international team has taken a big wage cut and there is a correction cascading down from the top. There are some very harsh economic realities. During the re-negotiations we were saying: ‘You’re better having a 25% salary cut rather than having 100% of no job because your club has bitten the dust.”
There is also the small matter of communities, up and down the land, which rely on their local rugby club as a beacon of hope and inclusivity. Somehow, in common with other sports, some way has to be found to permit people back through the front door. As Hopley puts it: “You just hope that with common sense and social distancing people can return, revenues can start to trickle in and a bit of confidence will come back. The bottom line is we all want to see the game surviving.” It is a crisis, without question, and the clock ticks more loudly by the day.
Take me to your leader
The most admirable leaders tend to be most conspicuous when they are no longer around. This week will see Brad Barritt and Chris Robshaw both limping away into the Premiership sunset after heroic stints as captains of their respective clubs Saracens and Harlequins. No one who watched them play even half a game could ever doubt their commitment to the cause; at no stage did either of them ask someone to do anything they would not unhesitatingly do themselves. Barritt earned 26 England caps compared to Robshaw’s 66 but both deserve equal respect for their relentless example and selfless work ethic.
One to watch
The final week of the regular Premiership season will see one of Bath, Wasps, Sale and Bristol miss out on the play-offs. Monday’s bonus point win at Harlequins has elevated Wasps to second place and they will now hope to finish the job at home to a potentially-weakened Exeter on Sunday. Bath, meanwhile, just have to win away at Saracens to qualify by virtue of having more victories than either Sale or Bristol. One of the latter duo could yet miss out even if they win both their remaining two league games with a bonus point.