The rumours and mystery surrounding the Aviva Premiership salary cap need to be cleared up to restore the league's credibility
My godson went to Twickenham for the first time on Saturday. He’s six and this is the first year his attention has been drawn by rugby; previously tennis and football had dominated his sporting consciousness.
Seeing him before the game reinforced the very essence of what is great about not only rugby but all sports. He was the incarnation of the expression ‘bursting with excitement’; there was the big grin, never-ending questions to sate his thirst for knowledge and an eagerness to find his seat as quickly as possible.
While his chosen team didn’t go on to lift the trophy on Saturday afternoon, Saracens taking the prize, he did get to see his hero Joseph score a try and was enthralled by his first experience at the home of English rugby. It was a timely reminder of the simple joy, make that the pure joy, sport can generate.
Unfortunately it was not quite the same for me. In fact, seeing my godson’s beaming face as he experienced his first big sporting occasion live only served to strengthen my own unease. I couldn’t explain my misgivings to a six-year-old – and, more importantly, I shouldn’t have to.
My anxiety is not about the state of the game itself. This has been one of the best seasons of rugby in the past decade, with attack firmly back on the agenda. The last day of the Six Nations demonstrated as much at an international level while Bath and Glasgow have been prime movers in the return of free-flowing play in the Premiership and Guinness Pro12 respectively. While we’re on the subject, credit to the Warriors for sticking to the creative, offloading style that got them to the Pro12 final and playing with such attacking verve to triumph in the showpiece event.
Back to the unease, though, and it centres on events off the field. After the recent corruption and bribery allegations engulfing football, it’s time for rugby – or, more specifically, the Premiership – to be far more transparent in its off-field management.
I’m not for a millisecond suggesting rugby’s problems are in the same league as the charges levelled at FIFA, but there are issues. It would be naïve, blinkered even, to suggest otherwise.
And the problem? The salary cap. Okay it’s not been a major news story in recent weeks, overtaken by big-game build-up as well as on- and off-field indiscipline. Yet The Times reported at the end of April that the Premiership clubs had voted to suspend salary cap investigations until the end of June, meaning if any teams are found to have breached the £5m limit and thus incur a points deduction it will affect next season’s table.
Premiership Rugby have insisted they are not sweeping any rule-breaking under the carpet but the fact that Saturday’s two finalists – Bath and Saracens – are the clubs alleged to have most benefited from the delay in investigations is a bitter irony. Some were calling it a cap final rather than a cup one.
Of course, no clubs have been found guilty of breaching the salary cap. Indeed, we don’t even know if any clubs have actually been investigated this season because Premiership Rugby’s policy to keep such information confidential. But this is part of the problem. Why the secrecy? The fact they will neither confirm nor deny if clubs are being investigated merely raises suspicion. As does the fact the clubs voted to suspend investigations. It could be that there is no wrongdoing whatsoever by any club, but the clandestine nature of the whole processes creates mistrust.
And if clubs have breached the cap this term – which basically means they cheated – they have escaped punishment in the season that it affects. Who knows what teams would have reached the final if investigations had continued, clubs were found guilty and subsequent points deductions were applied to the 2014-15 table?
The answer to all this is transparency. If a club is being investigated, tell the public. If they are guilty or innocent, tell the public. If everything is done in a public way, it immediately eradicates any sense of a cover-up. And any club found guilty needs to be punished in the season in which they breached the cap.
There have been calls for all player salaries to be made public, as the NFL does in America. I don’t think that is a necessity but there does have to be far more openness to the whole process to ease suspicions. Without transparency over the salary cap, the joy and excitement of fans like my godson is tarnished.