London Irish are set to be suspended from playing next season by the Rugby Football Union on Wednesday, leaving their players scrambling for employment ahead of next season.
The chaos has also led to calls from Championship clubs for English rugby union bosses to heed the “wake-up call” and seize the opportunity to strengthen the second tier with more generous funding in a bid to accommodate the afflicted Irish players and solidify the league structure.
In scenes grimly familiar to those encountered by the squads of Worcester Warriors and Wasps just months ago, each individual at Irish faces a different circumstance. Though some are certain to be recruited within weeks, others have taken matters into their own hands with personal calls and emails.
Telegraph Sport understands that England wing Henry Arundell and World Cup hopeful Tom Pearson have both received at least four expressions of interest from various Premiership sides. Arundell, the explosive 20-year-old who made his first Test start against Ireland during the recent Six Nations, is believed to have provisional offers from France, with multiple Top 14 clubs in the running, as well as South Africa.
Pearson was voted as the Rugby Players’ Association young player of the year in recognition of his performances as Irish finished fifth in the Premiership. The all-action back-rower, and club captain Matt Rogerson, have been sounded out by Steve Borthwick and are in contention for England’s training camps this summer.
That pair could also benefit from the fact that Northampton Saints are in the market for a back-five forward after Lukhan Salakaia-Loto left for Australia last week. Harlequins and Bath are two other clubs said to be “respectfully keeping tabs on the situation” at Irish more generally.
The experience of Jack Willis, the ex-Wasps flanker who moved to Toulouse, will be used as a precedent for any prospective England player that secures a move outside of the Premiership. They will be able to make a strong argument that playing abroad should not hinder their eligibility, at least initially. Ben White, the Scotland scrum-half, could head to a United Rugby Championship franchise north of the border.
Meanwhile, Ben Loader, Will Joseph and Ollie Hoskins appear to have options in the Premiership. Many clubs have already spent up to budget for next season, having planned their recruitment in advance because of tight finances. As in the case of Worcester and Wasps folding last season, there will be no scope for salary-cap exemptions as a special measure.
The ceiling of the salary cap, however, is due to rise from £5 million to £6.4 million ahead of the 2024-25 campaign, which could help players to find destinations and squeeze onto top-flight rosters.
A number of London Irish players are aiming for roles in the Championship, following the lead of former Worcester players like Will Chudley and Matt Kvesic, both of whom will be at Coventry next season. Brochures and individual CVs are known to have been circulated to Championship clubs by agencies over the past few days, detailing clients that will be seeking employment.
‘This has to be a wake-up call’
Telegraph Sport understands that there have also been direct emails and phone calls made to potential recruiters in the Championship by players at Irish. A Championship source suggested that governing bodies could act constructively in a time of change.
“This has to be a wake-up call,” they said. “Through unfortunate circumstances, the Premiership looks like it is going to get to 10 teams, which is what they have wanted for a while.
Why not take this opportunity to fund Championship teams better so they can have a stronger second tier as well? “I would love to take on a few of the players I have been offered. Some of them are former England Under-20 internationals, who would be great to develop. Some have Test caps. But how can I do that without additional finances from the RFU?
This should be an opportunity for them.” The RFU imposed a deadline of May 30 on London Irish in order to mitigate against uncertainty for next season given that the 2022-23 Premiership campaign saw both Worcester and Wasps go into administration during the fixture schedule.
It has since been acknowledged that it was a mistake to let those clubs start the season in such a perilous financial state. To avoid that sort of disruption during 2023-24, the RFU have asked Irish to demonstrate that either their takeover, by a US consortium, is viable or that Mick Crossan, the current owner, is prepared and able to fund the club through next season.
Failure to do so will end in suspension from competition, and a worst-case scenario is feared. Only on Friday, the RFU were said to have seen “zero progression” with the deal. Irish have been asked to outline their plans before 5pm tomorrow to the RFU’s financial viability group, who will meet and make a recommendation to the union’s board before an official announcement on Wednesday.