English rugby could be headed for economic Armageddon during coronavirus crisis as Premiership clubs cut wages

Will Macpherson, Simon Collings
Evening Standard
Getty Images
Getty Images

The RFU announced on Friday the cancellation of the remainder of the current domestic rugby season at all levels outside the Premiership due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"My thoughts and those of all of us at the RFU are with everyone impacted by COVID-19 as well as recent flooding events, both across the country at large but also within our own rugby union community," said chief executive Bill Sweeney in a statement.

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"In order to provide clarity and to assist with immediate and longer term planning, the Rugby Football Union is announcing the end of the 2019/20 rugby season for all league, cup and county rugby in England.

"The only exception to this is the Gallagher Premiership, who we are in active discussions with to review possible best next steps."

Here, Standard Sport's rugby correspondent Will Macpherson examines the key questions that arise from that decision...

Why is the Premiership carrying on?

Unlike its counterpart in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Italy, the Pro14, the Premiership battles on. It is currently suspended until April 20, but is set to be sidelined for plenty longer than that.

Clubs have suspended formal training, and players have no idea when they will next play. But much remains at stake at the elite level, both on the pitch and financially (see below).

Saracens' relegation from the Premiership has already been confirmed after salary cap breaches (Getty Images)
Saracens' relegation from the Premiership has already been confirmed after salary cap breaches (Getty Images)

On the pitch, nine regular-season rounds, plus a final and semi-final, still need to be played. That appears increasingly unworkable – assuming next season is to remain unaffected – as rugby is not like football, where multiple fixtures can be squeezed into a week. It is too physically taxing for players.

One thing that does not need deciding is relegation: Saracens are already down for breaking the salary cap. But there is much more up for grabs for those chasing spots in the Heineken Champions Cup and indeed the title.

How have seasons in postponed leagues been concluded?

In short, they have not. Sweeney said that this was still being worked out, and that we would have answers in mid-April.

One thing seems perfectly clear: Newcastle Falcons should replace Saracens in the Premiership.

They are top of the truncated Championship by 18 points, and deserve to come up.

Newcastle Falcons are currently on track for a return to the top-flight (Getty Images)
Newcastle Falcons are currently on track for a return to the top-flight (Getty Images)

What does this mean financially?

This is very bad news for rugby, which is precariously-placed financially at the best of times. The game could be headed for economic Armageddon.

Northampton Saints chief executive Mark Darbon predicted his club would lose £1.6million if the season could not be finished, because there would be no home games to host. Home games are the lifeblood of clubs’ finances.

To make things worse for clubs, they are getting no TV money while games aren’t being staged.

Almost all Premiership clubs look set to slash players’ wages by up to 25% during this period of inactivity, with Wasps, Worcester and Saracens becoming the first to do so on Friday. Staff, including executives, are taking paycuts too.

For the wider game, the picture is just as bleak, as Sweeney made clear on Friday.

RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney announced the suspension of English domestic rugby outside the Premiership on Friday (Getty Images)
RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney announced the suspension of English domestic rugby outside the Premiership on Friday (Getty Images)

“This was already budgeted to be a loss making year within a 4 year cycle due to the costs of the 2019 RWC campaign and only hosting two home Six Nations games,” he said. “The loss will now be considerably more as we face challenges similar to businesses across the entire country.

"There may well also be much longer term financial implications which we are assessing now.

“We have already undertaken financial measures to safeguard the business enabling us to review all options and programmes to provide support for clubs in these difficult times.”

The RFU have offered staff reduced hours and unpaid leave if they choose.

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