Rugby is not a sport associated with ‘big money’. Football is the game of six-figure weekly salaries, £150m kit deals (see Liverpool and Nike) and billionaire owners. However, over the last couple of weeks it has been money – and quite a lot of it – that has dominated the rugby headlines.
Sonny Bill Williams penning a £5.2 million contract with Toronto Wolfpack, Saracens being fined £5.4 million for exceeding the wage cap, and now CVC Capital Partners have agreed to buy a 27% stake in the Pro-14 – the same company who last year spent a phenomenal £200 million in securing a stake of the same percentage in the English Premiership.
To this extent, playing club rugby in the Northern Hemisphere has never been more attractive to players from around the world, leading many in the Southern Hemisphere to believe that – Super Rugby in particular – is on the verge of a talent drain that will decimate the domestic game.
Arguably, it’s already happening. “Of the World Cup Squad that won in Japan,” comments Ben Smith in his recent article for Rugby Pass, “less than half will play Super
Rugby next year.” Rejecting Super Rugby, many of these players are opting to play in Britain and Ireland.
Faf de Klerk has already enjoyed two seasons at Sale Sharks, whilst, according to the Irish Mirror, World Cup winners Damian de Allende and RG Snyman are poised to join Munster next summer on two-year deals.
Southern Hemisphere Unions are essentially on the verge of having to decide between a strong domestic league or a strong national team as the allure of money in the Northern Hemisphere grows stronger.
These South African players will have been emboldened by the decision of SARU to scrap the 30-cap eligibility rule for Springbok selection from 2020 onwards. This seems to be the growing trend: there is talk in Australia of scrapping Giteau’s Law which specifies players must have played at least 60 caps for the Wallabies and have signed a two-year agreement with a domestic side to be eligible for national selection.
It is not all doom and gloom for Super Rugby: Bauden Barrett has signed a deal with the All Blacks until 2023, moving away from the Hurricanes to the Auckland Blues; Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock have also secured their future with the All Blacks through to the next World Cup.
The danger posed to Southern Hemisphere Unions by the Northern Hemisphere’s growing domestic financial might is that it gives the Northern Hemisphere Unions all the power.
This imbalance of power allows Northern Hemisphere Unions to “wage full-scale financial war on Southern Hemisphere Unions to eliminate their depth and remove top players,” Ben Smith concisely concludes.
What we could see is the rugby equivalent of a trade war.
Whilst attractive to the spectator, this is dangerous for the domestic game here, too, as it does not allow clubs to blood young players and puts a decreased importance in the academy system. This was football’s mistake, and – whilst money increases to flow into the sport – one that rugby must learn from to protect its integrity.
Written by Will Sewell.