Worcester’s plight highlights why the sport needs to target long-term sustainability

Opinion: Financial instability threatens rugby’s future

Club rugby has always rewarded today, rather than tomorrow. It didn’t really matter in the amateur era. The little money that was sloshing around was spent in such a clandestine manner that even FIFA would marvel.

Player talent pools, and finance, were far more localised and looking forward a few months was all that was really required. But that is no longer the case. In the pro era, short-termism in rugby has become a problem that is destroying the game – and on many fronts.

In short, rugby needs to become more sustainable. Not in an environmental way (although that wouldn’t hurt). And not via some weird zoological breeding program where a constant source of playing talent is squeezed out every nine months – Leinster already have one of those. But in a way that rugby can remain largely the game that is today, in 20 years’ time.

Over the past month, we have seen both Worcester and Wasps in the brown stuff. Worcester are so deep in it that you can barely see their nostrils. It’s a cruel situation that the club find themselves in, but financial problems are not new to the sport.

Every year in England there is always one club in credible danger, and the Premiership is one of the most lucrative leagues in the world. In Scotland, funding is as scarce as a late August hosepipe party in Kent. In Wales, the regions are constantly being threatened with someone pressing ctrl-alt-delete.

And even in France, where euros flow like wine, there’s always at least one rumour each season of a merger between this team and that. Ireland appear to have it right and remain the envy of many.

Whilst there will never be enough money in rugby, rugby’s ‘s*** or bust’ attitude to each season cripples the game in all leagues. The desire to stretch salary caps like a cheap cornershop carrier bag has created a club game that is obsessed with the next match, not the next ten years. And such financial instability threatens rugby’s future.

The ‘win this season, at all costs’ attitude is crippling the long-term health of not only the financial aspects of the game, but also player safety. Little more can be squeezed out of players – they have become no more than ‘jaffas’ dripping into rugby’s juice glass and the sport is beginning to bear those concussive fruits.

It’s obviously important to encourage a longer-term attitude with regards to players and their output. But it’s financial stability where the issue regularly hits a wall that is as jarring as the Pumas’ defensive line in Christchurch.

Over the past few seasons Worcester supporters will have lamented their team’s performance. And the turnover of coaching staff is evidence of that. But how many of those supporters would now swap relegation, or near relegation, for mere existence. It really is that simple. Post-Covid, rugby success is now often just survival, not silverware.

Perhaps the issue of short-termism in rugby is no more evident than within the political interests of the professional game and the amateur game in Wales. Wales’ professional rugby decisions are heavily governed by the amateur side of the boardroom table. In a situation that isn’t just short-termism, but almost backwards-ism.

Like it or not, the decision on whether a club should install a new boiler, car park or a posh TV in the lounge, is very different to running a £100m business. Welsh rugby needs to look to the 2080s, not the 1980s. Something that won’t happen when modern business heavyweights, who have been enlisted to help Welsh rugby, keep walking out the door with bigger frownlines than when they went in.

So, what’s the solution? One may be to reward those who perform successfully over longer periods of time. Is it really any better to win the league one season, then finish in the bottom half for the next few – or finish in the top three over the same period?

Why isn’t there a prestigious award for the teams that finish with the highest aggregate position over three or five seasons? Why doesn’t every league have a ‘Half-Decade Award’ for instance, where players, coaches and administrative staff are lauded for burning like a candle, not a sparkler?

The same can be said of players. It’s clearly not easy to score the most points in a single season, nor score the most tries. But it’s a damn sight harder to finish in the top three of the scoring categories over five seasons.

It’s similar with Player of the Year nominations and the reliance on a 12-month period. Such a small cycle of appreciation is almost always dominated by ‘strike’ players who make breaks and score points – to the detriment of front-five forwards whose impact is often slower to build. Take a player like Wales’ Adam Jones. Rarely nominated for Player of the Season in a 12-month cycle, but over a ten-year period he was arguably Wales’ most important player.

Then there’s the role of the unions in this. Rewarding the various unions for sustained success over a decade is something that the game has never done. In fact, there is no system for recognising which unions have truly performed over a long period other than counting World Cup and Six Nations wins. A true reflection of a union’s success should also encompass financial stability, the growth of grass-roots rugby and so on.

This isn’t to say that rugby is entirely short-terminist in everything it does. It isn’t, clearly. The growth of the women’s game is evidence of this and one of rugby’s incredibly bright spots. And the constant evolution of the laws is proof that rugby is aware of the need to change.

However, rugby isn’t a game that can survive long term with short-term lenses. It’s time to pop in those long-term lenses and look beyond the next 12 months because as it stands all this financial instability threatens rugby’s future.

Download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.

Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.