The Oxford dictionary definition of a crisis is a time of danger. Alternatively just listen to the words of Damian Hopley, chief executive of the Rugby Players’ Association, as he seeks to protect his members’ livelihoods. “Can clubs survive until Christmas or into next year? Can some unions survive? It’s a very stark situation. The foundations of sport have been completely rocked and we’re now in a position where we’re starting to understand the real impact.”
Hopley is not exaggerating for effect. The players he represents are trapped in a nightmare that rugby union can ill afford. The Covid-19 situation is affecting everyone in the country to some degree but give it another three months and, without the return of crowds or matchday income, we will be discussing much of professional rugby in the past tense. Not just the odd struggling Premiership club but almost all of it, save for a lucky few with a billionaire writing endless blank cheques.
Such is the reality increasingly confronting even the country’s leading players. Without some element of government help – or a change of tack on allowing even a few thousand people into stadiums – 25 years of work on building a viable professional structure will crumble inside a few months. Hopley likens it to “a typhoon sweeping through the sport” and the metaphor does not feel misplaced.
Because what will be left if rugby is simply left to weather the storm alone? Very little of value and Hopley’s members can already start to feel the building shaking. “Professional sport isn’t always a model that stacks up and it was the philanthropy of the club owners that was holding it all together,” says the former Wasps and England centre. “And when their businesses start being affected as adversely as they have been, there’s a seismic issue. A lot of players are getting very nervous about what the future holds. No one can look into a crystal ball and say exactly where it is going to end up, hence the call for government support.”
Despite the wage cuts already widely agreed across the game, Hopley also fears the number of professional players in these islands is about to drop significantly. “We’re very fortunate to have wealthy investors but the noose is tightening in every aspect. Talking to players the reality is starting to sink in that sport is not immune to what is going on. We’re not talking about the unemployment figures of the 1980s but we won’t be far off by the time this all stabilises.
“As a players’ union our ultimate goal is for players to be in jobs – and protected in those jobs as best as possible. My personal concern is that the number of jobs may well diminish if the sport is ravaged as is currently being forecast. As Stephen Vaughan of Wasps said in the Guardian interview, there will come a point when people say: “I can’t keep spending money without any return so, regrettably, I’m going to have to walk away.”
The situation, Hopley acknowledges, is even worse at Championship clubs where players have been staring down the barrel for years. Their Premiership cousins are now discovering how unsettling that is. “Sometimes professional sport can be seen as a dirty word and everyone thinks people are on telephone number salaries like in other sports. Well, that isn’t the case in rugby. While the players are fortunate to be doing what they’re doing there is genuine concern when you hear what the people holding the purse strings are saying. This is not idle chit-chat, it’s a very stark warning of what may come if fans can’t get back in to see games live. Steve Diamond at Sale has talked about catastrophe and devastation. These are biblical words and
they’re not being casually thrown around.”