Salary cap allegations have potential to damage credibility of English game

A return to distrust and ill-feeling of past is something no one wants to see

“You like to think, if there are rules and you sign up to those rules, then everybody plays by those rules. There is no grey area,” said Conor O’Shea. Photograph: Tony Marshall/Getty Images

“You like to think, if there are rules and you sign up to those rules, then everybody plays by those rules. There is no grey area,” said Conor O’Shea. Photograph: Tony Marshall/Getty Images

 

It’s easy to throw around war metaphors when writing about sports, especially territory-based games like rugby. Some years ago my brother was flatmate to a sniper. Nice bloke. Razor sharp mind. Didn’t blink. A former Croatian soldier, having retired from the sniping game he’d travelled to Finland to study. A man who knew about war. Real war. It puts things in perspective.

During last season’s great power battle for control of European club rugby it seemed that every Thursday or Friday afternoon another Premiership chief bottle-washer would take their turn at the diplomacy megaphone.

Insults and jibes were lobbed by all sides across various bodies of water and for a time there seemed a very real possibility that European rugby as we’d grown to know it would never be the same.

Time thankfully moves on. And with the first season of the Champions Cup era in the books, we had top level rugby action and a gripping final. Blue and yellow ribbons fired out of the cannons instead of the red of Toulon? Unfortunate, as indeed was the free ticket fiasco. But in general, things are moving forward. Good enough, you’d think. But there could be messiness ahead.

Avoid damage

John WesterbyOwen SlotTimesTimes

On Sunday evening Harlequins director of rugby Conor O’Shea joined Brian Moore, now of the Telegraph and formerly of the England front row, on TalkSport radio. “You like to think, like in anything in sport, if there are rules and you sign up to those rules then everybody plays by those rules full stop. There is no grey area.” said O’Shea. “You need to know the rules of engagement, and they need to be stuck by.”

The former Ireland fullback stressed that he had not been at the February meeting himself, but his feelings on the topic seemed clear. “You look back to the mistakes of the past – whether it be cycling, whether it be athletics – and you don’t hide it. You can’t hide it. It will come out.”

If there was an active investigation, May 16th would be a key date; a points penalty handed down before then could impact a team’s Champions Cup seeding (Saracens are currently in third place) or even bump them into the Challenge Cup. Saracens boss Nigel Wray has denied that his club is being investigated.

Sanctions A spokesperson for Premiership Rugby told The Irish Times that although they “cannot comment on any investigations which may or may not be going on” there was “no amnesty on any breaches” and stressed that if any sanctions were to be imposed as a result of an investigation they would be publicised. They view that commitment to publicity as an improvement on the previous system where “not even the sanction was published”.

The Guinness Pro12 does not have a salary cap on a league-wide basis, and the Premiership salary cap has not yet been legally challenged. What goes into a cap calculation is not a straightforward matter. The 2014/15 “Premiership Rugby Salary Capping Regulations” document is 56 pages long, single-spaced. There are various player categories, allowances, exemptions. NFL franchises, long-used to a salary cap, hire “capologists”. It’s a maze.

Part of the purported argument for clubs, led by Premiership Rugby, needing to set up a “new” tournament was the supposed loose moral fibre of the Heineken Cup with its Pro12 sides who without the stiffening fear of relegation could seemingly swan about all season readying themselves for battle in the key European weeks.

Rested players

Bernard Woolley of the timeless Yes Minister might well have described it as another of those irregular verbs: I employ a sensible squad rotation system; you rest players occasionally due to the rigours of an attritional game; he/she plays a weakened team and brings the entire credibility of the sport into disrepute.

Meritocracy A morally pure meritocracy must be based on rules, strictly followed. If clubs are breaking the Premiership salary cap and investigations have been suspended it sends a very bad signal to all of European club rugby.

Bad governance at home could lead to bad governance abroad. Ill-feeling, suspicion, distrust. A return to those well-dug trenches is something none of us wants to see.

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