If the penny is not already dropping for the majority of English rugby’s professional rugby players it soon will. When the sport does finally resume there will be tighter budgets, fewer alternative boltholes for those out of contract and, in the worst-case scenario, a rise in insolvent clubs. Aside from a lucky few, rugby’s age of austerity is about to kick off in earnest.
The repercussions are starting to lap at the feet of Premiership players during the current lockdown and things will become significantly worse should the next Premiership TV deal involve less money and the RFU’s central funding decrease. What will that mean for squad sizes, reserve teams and academies? And if that is not enough to make all involved feel queasy, where does that leave those already struggling to scrape a living at Championship clubs?
There is already a broader trend emerging. Squeezed between the top-end players and the legions of young hopefuls on tiny wages are hundreds of middle-ranking pros, once the bedrock of every club. Suddenly, if it boils down to a choice between a Premiership club renewing the contract of a 29-year-old on, say, £120,000 or signing an academy graduate on £12,000, harsh economic truths are coming into play.
The net effect threatens the very existence of the journeyman pro, the guy who puts his body on the line for a decade or more without ever tempting the national selectors. Once upon a time he might have dropped down into the Championship or headed abroad to keep playing. At this rate there will be no option but to tackle the real world and combine rugby with a proper job. Assuming, that is, they live in a part of the country where anybody is hiring.
Few have more empathy with their situation than Ben Mercer, whose instructive book, Fringes: Life on the Edge of Professional Rugby, is proving an increasingly serendipitous publication. Mercer, whose younger brother Guy captained Bath, has been around a few blocks, captaining Bath Under-21s before embarking on a scenic career route that included an English literature degree at Newcastle University and spells at Blaydon, Plymouth Albion, Cornish Pirates and, finally, Rouen.
Along the way he learned a little about rugby and a whole lot more about people, life and the murkier recesses of professional sport. “Rugby is not a good option as a career path,” he states bluntly on page two, before spending the next 336 pages detailing his efforts to make a living playing the sport he clearly loves.
It is a thought-provoking read and does a fine job of highlighting the hidden stresses – form, injury, the next contract, selfish teammates and mental insecurity – not always visible to those in the stands. Now retired, the 33-year-old works with the Life After Professional Sport organisation, which encourages athletes to plan ahead, and knows exactly how many current players – and coaches – will be feeling. “The guys in the Championship are vulnerable normally and the current situation is accelerating everything. The whole system has been built on sand for a while.”
In Mercer’s view, though, it is simply inaccurate to dismiss the problems of the second tier as irrelevant to the top level. Having played in the Pro2 in France, he has also seen what is possible with slightly more joined-up thinking. “I think half of England’s World Cup squad had played Championship rugby. It’s necessary for the development of players and also for the viability of a Premiership squad. Those high-profile guys drive the eyeballs, they take big risks and they deserve their money because they’re the best players, but the whole system really leans on taking advantage of the guys in the Championship who go on to make up the numbers in Premiership squads. You can’t keep milking those guys: they are the start point for the top level of the game which everyone wants to watch. If you kill that, you’re really going to struggle to develop people through.”
Mercer, nevertheless, can foresee fewer gigs for professional players in their late 20s – “As the top guys’ salaries grow and with the salary cap in place you can’t afford the mid-market professional any more” – unless measures are put in place to change how Premiership clubs construct their squads and encourage them to retain unflashy team men.
“After a player has been at a club for over five or six years, what if a club could then offset a big percentage of his salary off the salary cap? It would discourage the mercenary approach and make those guys an asset to the club, rather than people thinking: ‘I could get five academy players for him.’ Maybe it would encourage a mindset of clubs nurturing players rather than using them up.”
His travels, either way, have taught Mercer that the exploitation of fringe pros needs addressing. “The Rugby Players’ Association don’t cover Championship players but they’re the guys who need the protection. There are so many horror stories of people getting injured or having their contracts cut. The sums of money are so bad and so is the care. They’re earning less money, they’re training for longer hours … those guys are really getting squeezed. Now that those things are starting to affect the top guys, everyone’s suddenly talking about it.”
With France’s leagues also increasingly prioritising home-grown talent, it may be that cruising the boulevards and byways of Europe and playing a bit of rugby will once again become the preserve of students and backpackers rather than a career option for the cast-offs of middle England.
That might be no bad thing, reckons Mercer, if it means more people playing rugby for enjoyment rather than euros. “It’s a big commitment, it’s dangerous, it hurts, it can be a lot of travelling … but what’s lovely is that there are still a lot of people prepared to do that.” In the present climate, though, many journeymen risk being caught between a ruck and a hard place. “Rugby has always set a lot of store by its ethos but I think there’s a very real danger of that disappearing at the minute,” Mercer adds. “The whole system just doesn’t work and hasn’t done for a while.”
Fringes: Life on the Edge of Professional Rugby by Ben Mercer is available via https://www.benmercer.me/book