If one is misfortune and two is carelessness how on earth to describe the loss of a third Premiership club in the space of eight months? London Irish have finally followed Worcester and Wasps in being kicked out of the league, the financial mess that engulfs club rugby growing deeper. Again it is a tale of broken promises, of misplaced hope that salvation was round the corner.
The figures alone are haunting. Upwards of £30m of debt, approximately 70 players unemployed. But the numbers do not speak of the devastation that accompanies the demise of a professional club. Nor the depressing inevitability of something that has been on the cards for months, writ large in recent weeks, or the powerlessness to stop it.
The reasons behind Irish’s demise are different to that of Worcester and Wasps but no less chilling. Worcester’s problem was their co-owners; Wasps’ what can be described, with hindsight, as a ludicrous bond scheme. What will terrify those in the corridors of power in regards to Irish’s downfall is that it was due to a benefactor who had supported the club for the last decade but either could not or would not continue to do so.
It is terrifying because here is an illustration of just how precarious it can be to live at the mercy of a wealthy owner initially willing to absorb losses. Take Bath as an example. Bruce Craig is said to have pumped a few more million into the club and Finn Russell’s arrival will be greeted with great fanfare. But what of Bath if Craig pulls the plug? The same goes for Bristol if Steve Lansdown decides it is time to get out. Likewise Tony Rowe at Exeter. Newcastle, on the other hand, have been criticised for slashing their budget and with it their ambition. At times the criticism is justified – their capitulation at home to Northampton in the penultimate round of the season was pathetic – but at least they are trying to live within their means.
If the first draft of the next Professional Game Agreement does not spell out instructions as to how clubs must address their debt – exacerbated by Covid recovery loans – and that their central funding is conditional on it, then it should be ripped up and thrown in the bin. That the government has stepped in by appointing two independent advisers to assist with the restructuring of the domestic game only reiterates the gravity of the problem.
At Irish, just as at Worcester and at Wasps, it is the human cost that is most sobering. The employees who are now out of work, who have given years, decades, to the club. In terms of the playing squad, the cream will be swiftly picked off – Tom Pearson has an array of suitors, so too Henry Arundell and the highly rated Chandler Cunningham-South. But what of the lesser-heralded players? Not all will find employment in what is already a crowded market.
That the players and staff agreed to an extension to the Rugby Football Union’s deadline, primarily to ensure that they at least received some of May’s wages, is a damning indictment of the landscape. Irish’s owner, Mick Crossan, has his supporters after picking up the club a decade ago, for absorbing losses year on year, for relocating them to the capital and for continuing an upward trajectory. Much of that goodwill has been lost in recent weeks. As well as being given the ultimatum of only being paid 50% of May’s wages in order to keep the club afloat, staff and players were also paid April’s wages late.
To put the burden on the players is to tug at the heartstrings. At the start of May, Irish’s director of rugby, Declan Kidney, reminded us it was a club with a 124-year history, with amateur roots in Sunbury in Surrey, also a club with a community feel. It is that sort of emotion that clouds judgment when it comes to the proposed takeover by a US consortium. Take it away and all that’s left is an investment that makes little business sense. Granted the Hazelwood training base is an impressive asset, but Irish do not own their stadium and have tens of millions of pounds of debt.
Simon Massie-Taylor, chief executive of Premiership Rugby, has inherited a lot of problems of his predecessors’ making and has approached them with commendable intent, but it was naive in the extreme to remark of Irish’s prospective buyers that “they’re from across the pond and they’ve got interest in other sports so it is a positive news story”. He is not the first to be seduced by Uncle Sam but will now have to set about accelerating plans for a 10-team Premiership.
The desperate shame is that Irish have made great strides on the pitch this season. Kidney deserves great credit for that; he is an experienced hand with an unflappable nature who will have protected his squad from the turmoil as best he could. There is a wealth of talent in the squad, too, and if the aim was to spend big on players such as Waisake Naholo, Adam Coleman, Sean O’Brien and Curtis Rona as the cohort of English talent that includes Pearson and Arundell emerged then it nearly worked. The fanbase in Brentford has also grown – more than 11,500 attended their final match of the season – but ultimately it is another moonshot to crash and burn.
For its part the RFU has not known whether to stick or twist as the echoes with Worcester and Wasps have grown louder in recent weeks. On one hand there has been a desperation to avoid losing a third club from the Premiership in the space of eight months; on the other the union has to be firm after its chief executive, Bill Sweeney, was skewered by a parliamentary inquiry in November.
Irish’s suspension will only heap the pressure on Sweeney, whose public appearances have dried up in recent months. He is under pressure over his planned governance reforms and the botched handling of the tackle height law change. There is also understood to be an anticipated £40m shortfall in the RFU’s income, alongside a further projected £10m loss due to inflationary costs, such as those related to overheads.
The next Professional Game Agreement – which comes into force next year – may be Sweeney’s intended parting legacy but, in truth, he may not even get that far. If he does, then addressing the Championship – whose funding was slashed on his watch – must be among his priorities. It is absurd to think the Championship can come to the rescue for so many players out of work when it is not funded properly. If there is a glimmer of hope it is that cut-price year-long deals in the second tier or France, before the Premiership salary cap goes back up to £6.4m, may be the least bad option for many players.
But that several clubs believe raising the salary cap again is madness, given the current climate, only goes to highlight the depth of the quagmire English rugby is in. As one well-placed source lamented: “What is the vision, can the RFU give us a concrete vision for what English rugby looks like?”
Until it does, the worry is that London Irish will not be the third and last to fall. For now there are 10 green bottles sitting on the wall.