We should be casting our eyes over the runners and riders, perusing the comings and goings, drawing up our projected finishing orders, semi-finalists, winners. We should be arguing with alacrity over all of the above, dismissing each other’s opinions as worthless. Have you ever actually played the game? You don’t know what you’re talking about. All the usual brickbats any self-respecting sport rings out with at this time of year.
Instead, we approach the new season of English rugby, 25 years after the Premiership was minted, with a sick feeling in the stomach. We cannot even predict with any confidence how many teams will be lining up when it all kicks off next weekend.
The fate of Worcester is turning those stomachs at the moment, but really the club’s plight is little more than a bubo breaking the surface. A chronic condition has been bubbling under for years. The constitution of English rugby is hopelessly dysfunctional. But for a couple of periods of something approaching apparent solvency (circa 2005 and 2015, to be precise), only to be followed by the inevitable period of reckless overconfidence, it always has been.
If any bean counters had enough time on their hands to trawl through the individual accounts of the respective companies, they would discover that the cumulative losses of Premiership clubs in those first 25 years stand at more than half a billion pounds. For the most part, those losses have been covered by wealthy benefactors with great reserves of patience (if only they were infinite) and greater or lesser reserves of cash.
Worcester are in trouble because the owners appear to have more in the way of talk than they do money. There is an air of mutiny among the club’s employees now, so tired are they of the reassurances, but what we are seeing at Worcester is merely an exposure of the yawning gap between a typical Premiership club’s outgoings and its revenue. Without a Steve Lansdown or a Bruce Craig to smooth over the chasm in each club’s finances, Worcester is what happens.
It will not stop there. Wasps, multiple champions of everything no less, are the other club to have had their financial problems aired this pre-season, but it is an increasingly open secret that at least three others are in imminent danger. With some, the owner’s dwindling reserves of patience is the problem; with others, the dwindling reserves of cash. Either way, someone rich is needed and needed now. Please apply directly to each club.
An ability to sift between the genuine applicants and the circling vultures is the next requirement the dysfunctional governance model of English rugby needs to acquire. How much harder will that prove, given the almost-guaranteed losses any rugby-loving multimillionaires know they will be required to meet, should they decide to commit in good faith?
Each club took on a cash injection from CVC, the private equity firm, in December 2018, the month after Worcester’s current owners moved in. This will have tided over some of the clubs in the short term, but the long-term reality is that their share of central revenue has fallen now by the 27% stake CVC acquired.
Then Covid hit, which has undoubtedly precipitated the crisis. Nothing like a pandemic to expose yawning chasms. Each club, it is believed, has taken on an eight-figure loan from the government. Worcester’s was £15m. No doubt, repayments are not due for the first couple of years, but soon they will be, adding probably more than a million to each club’s annual outgoings.
Given all of which, it is perhaps not surprising that the influx of big signings to the Premiership feels rather paltry this year. Handré Pollard, the South Africa World Cup winner signed by the champions, Leicester, from Montpellier, is pretty much it as an incoming superstar.
There are a few big signings within. Vincent Koch, Pollard’s Springbok teammate, moves from Saracens to Wasps, while Sale in particular have signed a few interesting Englishmen, led by George Ford, but they have released four prominent South Africans, all of whom leave the Premiership.
Cutting its cloth feels the shape of things to come for English rugby as much as in any other walk of life. Maybe one day we may even enter a third period of something approaching solvency. Or maybe the number of English clubs trying to pay their players a living wage will diminish as the strugglers fall away.
If making predictions about how things will shake out at the end of a nine-month season is futile at the best of times, this year the uncertainty feels particularly poignant.