'Shock of the shutdown has brought rugby's problems into sharp focus'

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Scottish Rugby chief executive Mark Dodson says all rugby unions are "vulnerable" amid the pandemic
Scottish Rugby chief executive Mark Dodson says all rugby unions are "vulnerable" amid the pandemic

Everywhere you look in the global rugby game there are distress flares being set off, the latest of them from Murrayfield with Monday's announcement of cuts and furloughing against a backdrop of growing concern about where the sport is heading next.

"The jeopardy is real," said Mark Dodson, chief executive of Scottish Rugby, when asked how serious the threat to the game is right now. "This is a shock to the body of rugby. From our point of view this could be a huge blow to the finances of the northern hemisphere game, but we have to acknowledge what is happening out there in the world at the moment and there's no security of planning for anyone.

"We have to do some financial modelling on the games not taking place. We have all sorts of models. Our concerns are the same concerns that everyone in rugby has."

Cuts abound and 'rugby on the brink'

Before the news from Murrayfield on Monday there was anxiety from France where a leading official claimed that upwards of nine Top 14 clubs and seven second-tier sides are now in danger of running out of cash. This came on the same day that Damian Hopley, chief executive of the Rugby Players Association in England, said that professional rugby is "on the brink" amid a coronavirus-induced "financial freefall".

Unions around the world have been taking severe action to try to keep afloat. In the face of a predicted £60m loss, the Australian Rugby Union is proposing a 65% cut to the salaries of their Super Rugby players. In New Zealand rugby, all office staff have agreed a 40% pay cut for three months while the union predicts losses of £50m. In South Africa, there are reports that the highest paid players will be asked to take a 40% cut.

The IRFU in Dublin already have a sliding scale of pay deferrals ranging from 10% to 50%. The Welsh Rugby Union chief executive Martyn Phillips and national team coach Wayne Pivac agreed to a 25% salary cut weeks ago. Eddie Jones, the England coach, has also had his wages cut by 25% for three months along with chief Bill Sweeney and his executive team.

Every country is scrambling for clarity in a world where little exists. Every country needs money-spinning international matches to keep their domestic game above water and nobody knows when they're coming. Summer tours are about to be cancelled, including Scotland's jaunt to South Africa and New Zealand. Contingency plans are being drawn and redrawn on an almost daily basis.

If they're allowed, the SRU will move their summer tour to October. Given the complexity of international travel in the crisis, that's a 100-1 shot. They're hoping to play their remaining Six Nations game, against Wales in Cardiff, in October so as to release tournament money which they badly need. They're hoping for games in November, if not against the scheduled opposition (Argentina, New Zealand and Japan) then against England, Ireland and Wales as some kind of emergency Six Nations competition where revenues will be pooled and shared.

"The difficulty is that fixtures are determined by medical advice and medical advice will change through the summer," said Dodson. "We're hopeful of getting some autumn Tests, but where and against who is still undecided. Nothing is out and nothing is in. The money from the international game (the SRU would make about £12m from their autumn series) cascades down into the club game (Glasgow and Edinburgh both make a loss) so the international game is what we are dealing with first."

Quirk of fixture calendar helped Scotland

Scotland defeated France at Murrayfield in their third home game of the Six Nations before the tournament's suspension
Scotland defeated France at Murrayfield in their third home game of the Six Nations before the tournament's suspension

There's a lot of 'hoping' going on and no absolutes. What if no games can take place? What if the 2021 Six Nations comes under threat? "We'd be pretty disturbed by that scenario," said the chief executive."We'd be looking at structural change or support from government or from World Rugby to get us through."

While Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales are thinking ahead, so are New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. There are reports that instead of travelling north on tours, they may instead play a quickfire six-week competition as soon as they can to boost their ailing finances.

In club competitions, organisers are having to imagine all sorts of possibilities. If it can resume at all, the favoured option for the Pro14 appears to be to begin again without the Italian and South African sides and with the financially attractive derby games (Glasgow versus Edinburgh among them) before heading straight to the play-offs. In South Africa there's been mention of Super Rugby being cancelled and the Cheetahs and the Kings bailing out of the Pro14 to join the Lions, the Bulls, the Sharks and the Stormers in a one-off two-month competition.

The decision-makers at Murrayfield must say daily prayers in thanks for being able to host both of their home games in the Six Nations, unlike Italy, France, Wales and Ireland who all missed out on a home match that would have brought in millions. The SRU dodged a financial bullet there. The quirk of the fixture calendar has perhaps saved them from taking more punitive action with their staff.

Restructure of game looming?

Not only are unions talking about the coming months but there's also been dialogue about the bigger picture, post virus, and where rugby needs to get to in the future. Professional rugby has become seriously expensive and the shock of the shutdown has brought it all into sharp focus. Wage inflation has been rapid in recent years, driven largely by clubs in England and France, some of whom are mired in debt, propped up only by rich benefactors. As business models, they are deeply flawed and highly precarious.

Everybody wants more. Players' agents want more money for their clients, clubs want more games featuring their top earners, national unions want more Tests to feed all the mouths that are gaping in front of them. The burden on players grows, in some countries more than others. Player welfare is a reality in Scotland but elsewhere the phrase is trotted out without it having much meaning.

Some rugby luminaries - Agustin Pichot and Clive Woodward among them - have called for a reset of the game during this enforced break, a radical restructuring to fix the problems that exist all over the world. Wage inflation, player burnout, the disjointed global calendar between the northern and southern Hemispheres.

Dodson said there's more talk about these things now than before. "You might see a certain amount of deflation in the professional game. People may realise that you can't have the level of inflation we have had over the last 10 or 15 years. You might see much more cooperation between hemispheres.

"For all the tragic things the virus is producing, there's an opportunity here for all of us to act more as a rugby family. We're all vulnerable. All of us. We need to get to a point where the game around the globe is stable and sustainable. We need to be open to new ideas when we're out the other side of this."

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