With the Rugby World Cup drawing to a conclusion, English rugby fans' attention is switching to domestic matters - where they have found even more sources of frustration and confusion.
Last Thursday evening, following a board meeting, Premiership Rugby released a statement setting out salary cap arrangements for the 2016/17 and 2017/18 seasons, a key element in the development of the English game at the elite level. The headline numbers see an increase in base level of the cap from the current £5.5m to £6.5m in 2016/17 and to £7m in 2017/18. The increase is, according to Mark McCafferty, Premiership Rugby’s chief executive, “to ensure the English game thrives at club and country level and that we achieve domestic, European and international success”.
So far, so good - but the statement also referred to an issue that has been the subject of much debate and speculation in recent times, namely alleged breaches of the salary cap provisions by a certain number of Premiership clubs. These breaches, if proven, would cast severe doubt on the integrity of the game and should be seen as “financial doping” intended to provide unfair competitive advantage for those involved.
It was reported last year that Premiership Rugby had been alerted to potential breaches of the cap. This continued into 2015 when it was announced that the investigation would not report until after the conclusion of the 2014/15 season, something again that did not sit easy with fans and commentators alike.
Rugby fans have been left in the dark and last Thursday’s statement did nothing to shed light on the affair. It confirmed the investigations had been concluded and that “certain issues were pursued....where there were differences of opinion as to correct inclusion or not in the salary cap spend.” It went on to say that “Premiership Rugby and the clubs have now resolved the issues identified and have entered into appropriate confidential settlements”, but concluded “there have been no breaches”.
As statements go, it provided more questions than answers and the use of the “commercial confidentially” card has led to accusations that Premiership Rugby has attempted to brush the whole issue under the carpet in the same way that certain other governing bodies in other sports have done in the past and which are now coming back to bite them.
How many clubs were alleged to have breached the salary cap? Who were they and how was the issue resolved? Fans are none the wiser.
The issue comes down to transparency and how you want your sport to be perceived by all the stakeholders involved. Whilst certain confidences have to be respected, hiding behind the cloak of legality will not cut it in today’s sporting environment and fans are unlikely to forget the controversy in a hurry.
Already we see some fractions within the Premiership Clubs and players. Harlequins' Joe Marler responded to Premiership Rugby chief Mark McCafferty's insistence that no one had a broken the rules with a wry "yeah sure" on Twitter. Wasps released a statement last week confirming they were not one of those whom had reached settlements with Premiership Rugby.
Are we now to see similar statements from other clubs thereby exposing those who did reach a settlement?
The current regulations amount to 57 pages, so it is easy to see where any “wiggle room” can lie. The whole process has to be simplified in order to provide the transparency the game and its stakeholders deserve.