London Irish have been granted a final stay of execution by the Rugby Football Union at the explicit request of the club’s players and staff but the Exiles’ chances of long-term survival are considered slim.
Irish have until 6 June to pay the outstanding 50% of the wages of players and staff as well as meet the RFU’s initial demands if they are to avoid suspension from the Premiership. The prospect of the takeover being completed is considered a long shot by insiders, however, and it is understood the extension has been granted primarily in the hope that club employees will at least receive their salaries.
Suspension would represent a bleak outcome for Irish, who would join Wasps and Worcester in being ejected from the Premiership in the space of eight months. It would also accelerate plans for a 10-team Premiership, which would be introduced from next season, but mean the league has lost 23% of its clubs since October.
London Irish players and staff received 50% of their May wages on Wednesday – the second month running that they have not been paid in full and on time. The RFU has expressed its “extreme disappointment” with that outcome but stopped short of suspending London Irish from the Premiership on Wednesday night “to respect the wishes of those most affected”. The union has also made clear that the deadline of 4pm on Tuesday is final.
“It is deeply frustrating for all the staff, players and fans that there have been months of multiple missed deadlines,” said Paula Carter, an RFU board member and chair of the union’s club financial viability working group. “We are extremely disappointed that the club has so far only funded 50% 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.”
The RFU has reiterated its demands – that the US consortium completes its proposed takeover by 6 June or that the current owner, Mick Crossan, commits to funding the club for next season – or the Exiles will be suspended from the Premiership. They are the same demands the RFU set for its original deadline – Tuesday this week – and neither was met. There is also no evidence and little confidence they will be by 6 June.
The union’s stance softened hours before the Tuesday deadline when it emerged it was willing to grant an extension on two conditions: that wages were paid in full and that the prospective buyers provided key information. Again, neither of those conditions have been met – it is understood the RFU is still waiting on documents from the buyers, as it has done for months – but an extension has been granted after consultation with staff and players who asked for the deadline to be extended.
It is understood that the likelihood of the documentation ever arriving from the prospective buyers is now considered doubtful. Crossan can still step in and pledge to fund the club for next season but he was either unable or unwilling to do so before the initial deadline.
Hope was raised briefly on Tuesday when the possibility of an extension emerged and it is believed Crossan initially committed to paying the May salaries in full. At a meeting on Tuesday night, however, the players were confronted with an offer of 50% of their wages or to accept that the club would be suspended.
Against that backdrop, players are scrambling around to line up deals for next season in the event of suspension. Tom Pearson is attracting widespread interest, as is Henry Arundell, including from Bath where he was a season-ticket holder as a youngster. The highly rated England under-20s back-row Chandler Cunningham‑South will also be in demand. The worry is that less heralded players would flood an already crowded market, with agents understood to be looking for opportunities in the Premiership, the Championship and abroad.
Most clubs will have finalised their budgets for next season with little to no room under the salary cap, so the majority of players would probably move abroad or to the Championship. The glimmer of hope is that the Premiership salary cap is due to move back up to £6.4m the season after next so a cut-price deal for a year, in the Championship or abroad, before Premiership clubs have bigger budgets to play with, could be the least worst option.
The possibility of Premiership clubs being given dispensation to sign London Irish players is considered unlikely because it would require unanimous support including from those who choose not to spend up to the cap.