The relationship between rugby union and professionalism is fraught and longstanding. It’s continual distaste to the idea of paying players, at least that of rugby’s traditionalists, is often labelled as elitist and exclusive, as it can be seen to bar those without deeper pockets from engaging in the game. On the other hand, many argue that, at amateur level at least, players should play for the love of the sport, for their club, with their mates, and not seek financial betterment.

“There is no doubt that there are a few clubs that are playing fast and loose with the regulations.” These are the words of one Telegraph source, and a sentiment that anybody involved in the lower levels of senior rugby must recognise as at least partially accurate.

In late 2018 HMRC launched an investigation into improper payments to players, writing to notify all clubs in National Leagues One and Two that they would be investigating their accounts. Of particular interest is said to be the paying of foreign players on visitor visas, and the practice of companies related to clubs employing players in spurious jobs. The initial revenue and customs probe will also be extended to clubs below the fifth tier of English rugby. It should be noted here that clubs are of course allowed to pay players, and tiers two to five are generally considered to be varying levels of semi-professional, below that however, the situation is somewhat murkier.

Paying players in rugby union has been a contentious issue since the game’s inception, and the cause of the split with rugby league. There are a series of moral dilemmas to face, and clubs must balance ambition against the integrity of social and communal values. Ultimately, the issue of loyalty and the existence of journeyman players, who flit between lower league sides, undermine clubs with deep communal roots and a history of promoting locally raised and trained players. However, in a pyramidal professional structure, where aspirational clubs quite naturally seek every advantage available to them in the pursuit of promotion, is this surprising?

Perhaps not, but a recent WalesOnline investigation suggests that it may be extremely problematic. It found that as low as the Welsh Third Division money is being used to lure players away from other clubs. This notion of a desperate scramble for players services reveals much about the nature of grassroots rugby.

According to Dave Evans, Chairman of Lampeter RFC in Division 3 West B, “It’s dog eat dog… everyone is doing their best to make sure they’re not next in line to fold.” This dire description of the situation in Wales is not reflective of the rugby everywhere, but it does highlight the potential pitfalls of paying players.

However, as rugby becomes ever more physically attritional, with injury rates consistently rising, do players who dedicate family time, work hours, and risk serious injury, not deserve just reward? It is an issue that cuts to the core of rugby’s present predicament; increasing injury rates, allied to fading grassroots and an increasingly distant professional level, seemingly far removed from the average club.

Fundamentally, it is impossible, and would be ridiculous, to attempt to stop professionalism from trickling down the divisions. It would create a separate and unattainable professional tier. However, what must be done, is properly regulate and standardise the paying of players. Clubs must also decide for themselves whether the practice is sustainable in the long term, whether it is fair to pay some players and not others, whether players are buying in to their setup, and whether other incentives, such as free food, stash and drink, alongside better coaching, travel and facilities, could be more attractive, equitable and honest ways of investing money.

(Image: Peter Bolter)

Written by Joe Ronan