London Irish have been granted a final stay of execution after the players appealed directly to the Rugby Football Union.
Irish have until 4pm on June 6 to fulfil the remainder of the staff’s wages after owner Mick Crossan paid 50 per cent of the May salaries on Wednesday. The club must also prove that funding is in place for the club’s 2023-24 commitments, whether or not the takeover by the American consortium is completed. If they fail to meet those terms the club will be suspended from the entire English league structure and would become the third club to be ejected from the Premiership this season following the demise of Wasps and Worcester Warriors.
There is very little confidence inside and outside the club that the takeover will go ahead at this point, but the RFU granted the extension in order to “respect the wishes of those most affected” after repeated lobbying from the players and staff who were paid 50 per cent of their wages at around 4.30pm, just minutes before the RFU Club Financial Viability Group met to decide Irish’s future.
The group has yet to receive any documentation from the prospective buyers, who have repeatedly reneged on their promises and left the players in the dark. This drew the ire of Paula Carter, RFU Board Member and chair of the Club Financial Viability Working Group, who was remarkably forthright in her condemnation of both the club and the buyers.
“It is deeply frustrating for all the staff, players and fans that there have been months of multiple missed deadlines,” Carter said. “We are extremely disappointed that the club has so far only funded 50 per cent of the staff and player wages, however, we have to respect the wishes of those most affected.
“The 4pm deadline on 6 June is final and we have added the stipulation that the club must also fulfil its contractual obligations to its employees by paying the May salaries in full.”
This is the second time that the RFU has moved its supposedly hard deadline to accommodate the delays with the takeover. Initially the deadline was set for Tuesday before a 24-hour delay was announced providing the wages were paid in full and the consortium, headed by former sports agent Alfred ‘Chip’ Sloan, provided key financial information.
Neither of those demands have been met, but nonetheless the can has been kicked down the road for another week at least. The RFU was firm that there would be no more wiggle room with Tuesday acting as the final deadline for the club to pay the remaining wages as well as proving there is enough working capital to meet the club’s obligations for at least season 2023-24, whether that is through the current ownership or the consortium.
An RFU statement added: “If the club fails to meet these conditions it will be suspended from participating in the Premiership (and other competitions) in season 2023-24 to avoid a scenario where the club enters insolvency mid-season, with the corresponding and substantial impact that has on players, staff, and fans, as well as on the remainder of the league.”
Suspending Irish would almost certainly send the club into administration. Crossan only intended to fund Irish until March but has kept having to dip his hand into his pocket as the American consortium dragged its feet. On Tuesday, it appeared that he promised to pay the May payroll in full only to commit an 11th-hour U-turn in a meeting where the players were told to accept a 50 per cent cut without informing their agents to keep the club alive. Many have viewed this as a form of emotional blackmail.
Whether or not the remaining wages are paid, most figures within the game are preparing for the worst with several Premiership clubs circling the high-profile talents of wing Henry Arundell and flanker Tom Pearson. For the majority of the squad, however, the club’s suspension would come at the worst possible time with most Premiership clubs having already finalised their recruitment for the 2023-24 season.
Telegraph Sport understands Premiership Rugby will not consider granting any extra salary cap dispensation for clubs to sign Irish players. The lives of many players, staff and their families will be upended as a result. A benevolent fund is being set up between the RFU and Premiership Rugby to help the worst affected players.
If Irish are suspended then the Premiership will also fast-track their plans to create a 10-team league in the top division. The fulfilment of what many powerbrokers hope will be the salvation of English rugby, as it removes the overlap with international rugby, has come at a steep cost with the Premiership losing 23 per cent of its clubs this season.
There is also no guarantee that the league will not lose another club in the short-term. Leicester Tigers, the 2021-22 Premiership champions, needed a £13 million cash injection to stave off the threat of administration while Newcastle Falcons have slashed their playing budget to the bone to stay solvent.