England’s leading players face the increasing prospect of wage cuts and summer rugby as the sport battles to avoid financial meltdown because of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Rugby Football Union also confirmed it is open to shifting the Six Nations championship from its traditional slot in the calendar and remains hopeful of crowds being able to attend England games this autumn.
With the world of rugby already suffering from the serious impact of the current shutdown the RFU’s chief executive, Bill Sweeney, has acknowledged talks are ongoing with England squad members as part of enforced cost-saving plans at Twickenham. With senior staff members and the head coach, Eddie Jones, already committed to pay cuts of 25% or more, a significant reduction in the players’ current £23,000 match fees seems likely.
With Sweeney also indicating his union is open to the idea of summer rugby – “From an RFU position I think summer rugby can work” – the knock-on effects of the coronavirus outbreak look set to transform the sport from top to bottom, with almost nothing off the table. It remains conceivable the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour may have to be pushed back from July to October, with a clash also looming between rescheduled Six Nations fixtures and the mooted European Champions Cup final on the weekend of 17 October.
Sweeney has even been taking advice from senior Army officers at Sandhurst on crisis management as he seeks to steer the RFU out of the complex maze of issues affecting the sport. “We are all facing really challenging situations,” he said, stressing player remuneration had to be viewed in the context of the wider economic outlook. “Clearly we need to cut costs but … we don’t have the specifics at this stage. We’re in the middle of that conversation.”
On the subject of the calendar, Sweeney has already made clear a total wipeout of international rugby in Europe for the remainder of this year would have a “catastrophic impact” on the game in England and cost the RFU a total of £122m in revenue. Hence the desire to stage whatever fixtures might be possible this autumn, with three options on the table.
The first – and most improbable given the current issues surrounding long-haul international travel – is to proceed with the four scheduled Tests against New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga and Australia in November. If those cannot take place, there are tentative plans in place for a “home and away” Six Nations which would also incorporate the scheduled 2021 fixtures. The third option is for a separate “festival of rugby” tournament involving the Six Nations and a couple of invitational sides.
The deadline for confirming any revised November schedule will be August, effectively giving the global game two months in which to resolve a huge pile of conflicting priorities. As things stand, however, there is no question of the remaining 2020 Six Nations fixtures not being played, even if they clash with major European club finals in October. “Closing off those four remaining games in that autumn window is very much on the cards,” said Sweeney.
Whatever happens Sweeney is optimistic that, subject to government approval, some spectators could be admitted to Twickenham. “We’re still working on the basis that we will get some attendance there.”
The RFU, meanwhile, will not stand in the way of moving the Six Nations deeper into spring if required. “With regard to the Six Nations, we said from day one that if it works for the best interests of the game we would be prepared to move it, by a month or a couple of months or whatever,” said Sweeney.
For as long as physical distancing remains a compulsory requirement, however, there is no certainty as to when the community game will be able to restart. The RFU says there are three possible dates for the commencement of the club season, with the worst-case scenario involving no amateur rugby before January.