Sometimes it is not the iceberg’s fault. Had the captains of some of English club rugby’s largest vessels been more focused on avoiding this season’s multiple shipwrecks they could easily have steered a more prudent course. Hindsight always helps but if your outgoings constantly exceed your income you are bound to sink eventually, as Worcester, Wasps and now London Irish can testify.
Most painful for those most deeply affected, perhaps, is that even the most myopic of lookouts could recognise this ever-present threat. Yet for whatever reason – arrogance, selfishness, greed, complacency, poor governance – the clubs and their governing body remained in thrall to the same old flawed model. Rich benefactor equals rugby success, right? Not if they ignore the basic tenets of sound business practice it won’t.
The upshot is the kind of intense, deep-seated personal angst being felt by people such as Topsy Ojo, who played 301 professional games for London Irish. “There’s been a lot of tears, a lot of pain,” confirmed Ojo, a one-club man who has been associated with the Exiles for 20 years. “People have committed their whole lives to this club through the generations. To not have that leaves a very big hole.”
Along with thousands of other Irish supporters this week, the former England wing has graduated from shock and sadness to quiet anger and a determination to fight for a brighter future. “One club [disappearing] was bad enough. To get to three is ridiculous. It shouldn’t have ended like this. Whether it was the prospective owners giving false promises, our owners not looking elsewhere … I firmly believe this could have been avoided. It’s very troubling but this has to be the end of it. The game’s had more curve balls thrown at it – clubs going bust, Covid, concussion, tackle height – than ever before. But now it’s about what happens next and the plan that will secure the way forward for our game.”
Something clearly has to happen urgently, with the worst not necessarily yet over. “I think there’s more pain to come,” says Leicester’s former chief executive Simon Cohen, a keen analyst of this particular minefield. “I don’t think you can say there is a club that isn’t wobbling. Bristol has the richest owner in the Premiership [Steve Lansdown] and even he has indicated he is prepared to sell. If he wants out and can’t find a buyer, where does that leave Bristol?
“The clubs you think are secure at the moment are only secure because of a wealthy benefactor. And there is clearly investor fatigue. Every club is loss-making and those losses will accumulate to a point where they’re no longer able to fund them internally. Externally it’s extremely difficult to find a buyer. I don’t see any reason why this problem shouldn’t get worse instead of better.”
The solution, to Cohen’s mind, is not complicated. The English club game simply needs to get real, reform its governance, cut costs, link wages to revenues and rein in its delusions of grandeur. “I don’t think you can fiddle about at the edges of this problem because it’s so significant,” he says. “Unless you significantly change the governance model you’re not going to be able to do anything. I’ve seen lots of talk about getting more revenue. I think that’s a complete red herring. It’s about having a sustainable model.
“The game needs a reset. There are all sorts of areas in which money is not being spent as well as it could be. I think you can reset it quite quickly and restore people’s confidence but the root of all the evils is the lack of governance and, therefore, the ability to do what is best for the league. Rather than pandering to the wishes of he who shouts loudest, it requires people to be brave enough to take the right decisions in the interests of the whole game, not their own vested interests.”
In other words the days of wealthy owners bending the entire sport to their personal whim are numbered. So are the days of inflated salaries and mismanagement of the English game, both by Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Football Union. Take your pick from the RFU’s failure to grasp the nettle at the outset of professionalism in the mid-1990s, the decades of internecine political rows, the inability to sustain the legacy of the 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph, the failure to advance beyond the pool stages of the home 2015 tournament and the running down of the Championship, which has soured relations between the shires and the elite game.
On top of it all have been the ramifications of the 2019 deal to sell a 27% stake in Premiership Rugby, worth £200m, to the private equity firm CVC. “Some of us thought the CVC deal was an extremely poor one for Premiership Rugby to enter into,” adds Cohen. “It just seemed to me like it was a securitisation of future income. There was a price to pay – and it is now being paid.” Among the knock-on effects is the likelihood of more players either moving abroad or staying put and earning less. “It may be that players think they are worth more but to play a game they love with their mates for £90,000 rather than £150,000 a year might still be an attractive option,” suggests Cohen.
Act decisively, though, and the English patient could yet be resuscitated. Ojo, a presenter on Channel 5’s highlights show among his impressively wide-ranging portfolio of roles, is convinced of rugby’s ability to rise again. “Working at pitchside you see all the reasons why we love rugby. At the moment we’re firefighting. But in among all of that there is some really good rugby being played. Rugby still has a really good core fanbase and thousands of people still love the game. If we can get the governance bit right then rugby can absolutely thrive again.” With a potentially enthralling Rugby World Cup also looming this autumn, the sport’s worst Titanic nightmare can still be averted.