The RFU and Premiership Rugby have just unveiled their new Professional Game Agreement but what is in the small print of a document that took two years to sort out?
It was all smiles at Twickenham this week as Ian Ritchie, chief executive of the RFU, and his opposite number at Premiership Rugby, Mark McCafferty, unveiled the latest agreement between their two bodies and declared peace in our time.
The deal, worth over £200million to the clubs over eight years, sees England coach Eddie Jones get a bigger Elite Player Squad, now enlarged to 45 players, and his regular international players will be getting a couple more rest weekends.
The relationship between the RFU and the clubs has not always been so cordial – in fact they have been fighting like cats and dogs for most of the 20 years since the game went professional, although the current contract supersedes one made eight years ago which has worked out just fine. Those of you with longer memories will know it was not always like this.
From the time when clubs threatened to quit RFU competitions in 1996 to the dispute over Europe two years ago, through the desperate internecine fighting of the late 1990s and a ruck over payments to clubs over a player who had been on the 2005 British & Irish Lions tour, disagreement has never been far from the surface.
Chuck in the furore over the Andrew Plan, drawn up by Rob Andrew, in 1999 when the former England fly-half wanted to play the Six Nations in April and May – one that has reared its head only recently – and finish domestic rugby by the end of January before Europe kicked in and it has been pretty lively dialogue. Andrew was still at Newcastle then, before he left for the RFU in 2006, and helped negotiate the deal that just expired – he was involved in the new one as well.
But what does it all mean? Some of it is tedious, most of it is important, and quite a lot of it is ‘as you were’. The big takeaway is that it’s a whopping load of cash for the clubs – around double what they got last time round – and although it is not a lot by football standards it is a proper adrenalin shot in the arm. The bean-counters at the RFU are a canny bunch. Twickenham is virtually always sold out and there are a series of long-standing commercial deals in place so they have a fair idea of how much money they have got coming in further down the track so there is little chance of their cheques bouncing.
As McCafferty pointed out, it is essential that when clubs want to go to their local bank manager and borrow money for ground improvements, they know the funds are in place to cover any expenditure.
For Jones, who briefed the PRL board and told them the system in England was the best he had worked in, there are several upsides. The bigger EPS squad, up from 33, means he can get his hands on more players. The extra training camps during ‘core’ Test periods, to be attended by 36 of them, one at the beginning of October ahead of the autumn internationals, and one in the first week of January ahead of the Six Nations, give him more time to work with them. Every international coach, especially those from a club environment, moans about not seeing the players enough – it is not perfect but this one is an improvement.
Also, the Australian has a later deadline to name his first EPS squad at the start of October – in previous year’s they have been named in July and August then got injured, or lost form, when the Premiership starts. At least Jones will get the chance to see his players in action in the Premiership to see who has kicked on from the tour to Australia and who should be pushing those who haven’t. Ritchie said: “Eddie, over the next three years, has a great clarity as to what he has and how it works. For Eddie to go along and talk to the PRL board, well that collaboration has not been as evident in the past. The directors of rugby have been enormously supportive of the England cause.”
The clubs will see slightly less of their big guns because of a couple of rest weekends that have been inserted if they get a lot of Test game-time but most directors of rugby give their England stars a breather for a week after big tournaments. So not too much has changed there.
But they will no longer have to suffer the ludicrous situation that Saracens faced last year with respect to the English Qualified Player threshold of 70 per cent in a match day squad. Nigel Wray, chairman of the European champions, brought this up again recently when he explained that his side lost around £160,000 for not having enough English players in their side when half of them were on England duty. That one has been addressed so clubs get credits when players are away with Jones’ squad.
The exceptional circumstances clause is unchanged meaning Sam Underhill, the promising Ospreys flanker, or anyone else playing outside England cannot be selected unless there is a glut of injuries in one position. Underhill, like Steffon Armitage before him, is destined to become the poster boy for the critics of this but unlike Armitage, at just 20, he has plenty of time on his side.
England have won nine out of nine under Jones, a Premiership club are the European champions and the RFU and Premiership are best mates again. You wonder how long this blissful period of stability will last? History shows it won’t be long before there is another rumpus.