Traditionally, success in rugby has usually come from good player and coach development at all levels, underpinned by effective governance.
In New Zealand, we have some excellent examples – the All Blacks, the Crusaders, Canterbury. Nearly every major national union prioritises this because it is the only way for them to build long-term success.
This is also how to achieve at domestic level, certainly in the countries where the top teams are part of a pyramid, controlled by the national union. But what about big economies like France and England, where clubs are privately owned and exist for their own success? If the money is available, isn’t the easiest option to buy in the talent and take a shortcut to glory?
Toulon wholeheartedly adopted this strategy, bringing in lots of big foreign stars who were purchased through years of massive deficit spending. They were European champions three years in a row.
In England, Saracens were the wannabee Toulon. They have now become the best team in Europe for the past two years and have been there, or thereabouts in England for the last five. Saracens are also spending deep into deficit.
Do we follow suit?
This poses a question for everyone else. Do we follow suit to maintain a competitive squad or do we spend within our means?
Wages spiralled and the French Top 14 and English Premiership reached the stage where their clubs were making combined losses of tens of millions of pounds per year. Only a tiny minority break even. Some clubs have wealthy backers willing to fund these deficits, but others have failed financially, tried to merge, or are urgently seeking investment.
After years of success in Europe, Celtic teams haven’t won a European Championship since 2012. They lose some of their top homegrown players to England and France and struggle to attract the same level of foreign talent. The former also means that the national unions can’t enforce rest from club games or release for training camps.
Further afield, over 300 South Africans and many top Australians, Argentinians and Kiwis now play abroad. Not to mention the countless number of Pacific Islanders. They either don’t play tests anymore or have long journeys to and from their international commitments. These southern unions can’t match those northern wages, despite South Africa and Australia increasing player remuneration and also posting big deficits.
The wages arms race, instigated by massive deficit spending by a few European clubs, is impacting on the financial sustainability of domestic and international teams, many of them with illustrious histories. Have we reached the stage where something big has to give? In particular, can South Africa and Australia generate enough money to develop and retain enough players to remain competitive? Will international rugby become radically diminished by big club wages and long club seasons? Will clubs without wealthy backers become insolvent or uncompetitive?
In my opinion, professional rugby as we know it has become a house of cards and may be nearing a critical tipping point. It need never have happened, but there are solutions. In part two I will suggest some.
Author: JD Kiwi
JD Kiwi currently lives in northern England, trying to find enough waking hours to work, be a devoted family man, and watch too much rugby. He supports the All Blacks, Chiefs and Waikato but also enjoys watching European rugby.
As a player he was was the shortest lock and slowest pace bowler in New Zealand. His favourite sporting achievement was winning the annual bowling cup for his small town Second XI.