English rugby in turmoil as season canceled below top flight
English rugby was plunged into financial turmoil and uncertainty on Friday after the season was canceled at all levels below the top-flight Premiership because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Rugby Football Union executives are in “active discussions” with Premiership teams about how to manage the end of the season, while still not knowing when play can be resumed amid a shutdown of sport in the country.
While the RFU’s decision could result in some teams falling into financial ruin -- some in the Premiership announced on Friday that they have implemented 25% pay cuts throughout the club -- a big side effect will be felt in the second-tier Championship as teams seek to gain promotion to the lucrative Premiership and replace Saracens, which has already been consigned to relegation for breaching salary-cap regulations.
Newcastle Falcons, who have a perfect record this season after 15 games, hold an 18-point lead in the Championship and were on course to finish first with some ease, with seven games still to play.
“We are working through the implications of ending the season early and have instigated a thorough process to ensure fair and balanced outcomes for the game,” said Bill Sweeney, the RFU’s chief executive.
“We will communicate these outcomes by the middle of April. While we would like to provide all the answers now, we need some time to get it right for the best interests of the game. Rest assured we are working on this as a priority.”
Sweeney said the RFU, the richest union in world rugby, has “undertaken financial measures to safeguard the business enabling us to review all options and programs to provide support for clubs in these difficult times.”
But he laid bare the crisis facing the RFU even at the top of the game, because of the postponement of such events as the Six Nations and major club games that take place at Twickenham, the home of English rugby.
“In this extraordinary situation, we are working through a range of potential financial scenarios dependent mainly on the length of this crisis,” Sweeney said. “This was already budgeted to be a loss-making year within a four-year cycle due to the costs of the 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign and only hosting two home Six Nations games.
“The loss will now be considerably more as we face challenges similar to businesses across the entire country. There may well also be much longer-term financial implications which we are assessing now.”
The cancellation of the season affects all league, cup and county rugby in England except for the Premiership, which has been suspended for five weeks and still has nine rounds to play in the regular season. The final round of fixtures are scheduled for June 6, with the Premiership final planned for two weeks later.
The RFU had previously suspended all rugby activity until at least April 14, while the Premiership is due to start again on the weekend beginning on April 24, a resumption date that looks increasingly unlikely with the British government advising against mass gatherings.
Wasps, Gloucester and Worcester were among the top-flight teams announcing pay cuts, in their case amounting to 25% of players’ and officials’ salaries. Some lower-paid staff members were excluded from the cuts
“I could not be more proud of their response, understanding and determination to help the club in such testing times,” Wasps chief executive Stephen Vaughan said.
“These are extraordinary times which call for extraordinary and robust measures. We do not know with any certainty how long these reductions will be in place, but we will review the situation on an ongoing basis.”
Later Friday, the Welsh Rugby Unions announced it was abandoning all of its league and cup competitions, saying there will be no promotion or relegation this season.
“In the end, we have had to make the decision to ensure we play our part in safeguarding Welsh communities,” WRU chief executive Martyn Phillips said. “We know clubs will be disappointed but also hope they will be understanding, given the circumstances.”
Scottish Rugby, after suspending its domestic season last Sunday, canceled it on Friday.
The union didn’t believe the season could resume until July 1, and players would need a preseason to become rugby-fit, pushing the season’s proper resumption even further. The union said in the men’s game, alone, there was 295 domestic league fixtures outstanding.
The union added it didn’t want to impinge on next season.
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