On 6 April 2017, it was confirmed that a majority of the twelve clubs who make up Rugby League’s premier division, the Betfred Super League, had voted in favour of four proposals that had been put forward by the Rugby Football League (“RFL”), all of which were subsequently ratified by the RFL’s board of directors.
The new Regulations, which will come into force for the start of the 2018 edition of Super League, are as follows:
- Regulation 1 – Increase to the existing salary cap – a rise over the course of the next three seasons from £1.825m in 2017 to £1.9m in 2018, £2m in 2019 and £2.1m in 2020.
- Regulation 2 – Increase in the number of “marquee players” – each Super League club would be entitled to dispensation for two Marquee Players (an increase for the current allowance of one) whose Salary Cap value would be £175k or more:
- “Club Trained Marquee Players” (eg. home-grown stars) would be deemed to have a Salary Cap Value of £75k;
- All other “Marquee Players” (most commonly overseas stars) would be deemed to have a Salary Cap Value of £150k.
- Regulation 3 – New and Returning Players to Rugby League – each club would be entitled to dispensation for two “New Talent Pool Players” and/or “Returning Talent Pool Players”:
- “New Talent Pool Players” – defined broadly as a player who has not played Rugby League at first team, Academy or Scholarship level. The current allowance will continue to apply – namely, their Salary Cap Value be reduced: (i) by £0 in their first full season; and (ii) by 50% in their second full season.
- “Returning Talent Pool Player” – defined as a player who has not played Rugby League in the preceding five years (for reasons other than as a result of a disciplinary sanction or criminal conviction). A club would be given an allowance such that the Salary Cap Value of that player is: (i) reduced by 50% in their first full season; and (ii) by 25% in their second full season.
- Regulation 4 – Exemption of Junior Players from Salary Cap – all Players (outside a Super League Club’s top 25 paid players) who: (i) are age eligible to play at U21 level in the relevant Season; and (ii) are paid £20k or less, would be excluded from a Club’s Salary Cap.
To fully understand the rationale behind the new Regulations, they need to be viewed against the backdrop of the “talent drain” from Rugby League in recent years. Rugby League has grown somewhat accustomed to some of its best and brightest being poached by Rugby Union clubs in cross-code switches (think Jason Robinson, Chris Ashton, Kyle Eastmond and Denny Solomona). However, over recent years there has been an increasing trend for the best British talent to test themselves in Australia’s NRL competition, where the weather is almost certainly better but, crucially, so are the salaries, media exposure, and accompanying media endorsements.
As a result, concerns have been raised by some of the larger clubs in the Super League that the current salary cap, which has only risen slightly since its introduction in 1999, was restricting their room for manoeuvre when attempting to attract and retain talent. Indeed, in the RFL’s own words, the Regulations are designed to “help clubs keep and attract elite talent to the competition”.
In addition, the RFL are no doubt keen to avoid a denuded Super League becoming a less attractive “product” at a time when it is seeking to grow the game beyond its traditional heartlands.
However, the proposals were not greeted with unanimous support. With each of Super League’s twelve teams having a vote, it has been reported that Regulations 1, 2 and 3 were only voted through by a majority of 7 – 5.
Judging from some of mood music emanating from the sport, it has become obvious how some clubs voted.
Ian Lenagan, the owner of 21 times champions Wigan Warriors (a club who has seen a raft of its home-grown starts depart for both Rugby Union and the NRL) stated that “We need the best players playing in our competition and…the proposals that were voted through…will provide Super League clubs the opportunity to do that”. His thoughts were shared by Marwan Koukash, the owner of the big-spending Salford Red Devils, who noted that “We need to provide fans with the best entertainment and talent on the field and the decisions today give us the opportunity to do that”.
In contrast, Wakefield Trinity coach Chris Chester registered his displeasure. In his view, the Regulations were “divisive and it will make the gap between the top and the bottom wider. I find it bemusing…There won’t be any marquee players at Wakefield Trinity for the foreseeable future. It’s something we won’t be using.”
It seems that, of those clubs who voted against the more controversial Regulations, there was concern that the changes will merely provide an opportunity for those clubs with greater financial means to flex their financial muscles all the more, to the possible detriment of the competition.
Concerns have also been raised about whether the Regulations will actually achieve their goals. To put the proposed increase in the salary cap in context with the salary caps currently in place in Super League’s two main “competitors”: the NRL is around £4m a season, whilst in the Aviva Premiership it stands at a relatively eye-watering £7m. Indeed, one of those statistics was acknowledged by Roger Draper, the Chief Commercial Officer of the RFL and executive director of Super League, who conceded that “when you look at the comparison chart, we’ve stayed flat and the NRL have shot off [the graph]”.
Ian Millward, a two-time winner of the Super League whilst coach at St Helens, has been a vocal critic of the Regulations, describing them as mere “window dressing”. Millward claimed that the Regulations did not go far enough, and should reward clubs who consistently produce home-grown players by affording them greater dispensation within the salary cap, so that they can reward local stars who are increasingly being tempted by the bright lights, and warm nights, of the NRL.
By proposing and now securing majority support for the Regulations, the RFL have sought to the achieve a delicate balance between attempting to maintain financial prudence amongst its clubs and ensuring that Super League remains competitive whilst, at the same time, assuaging the concerns of those Super League clubs who were becoming increasingly frustrated at being pick-pocketed of their best talent.
Whether or not the Regulations prevent this happening is another matter entirely. Despite the forthcoming increase in the 2018 Super League season, the continuing disparity between those in the Aviva Premiership and NRL means that Super League clubs are likely to continue to struggle to retain their brightest and best. It is hard to circumvent or escape economic reality, with the revenues generated in Super League not allowing Super League clubs to compete on equal terms when transfer season arrives and contract renewals loom.
Talented players in any sport, not least one as physical and unforgiving as Rugby League, will always look to maximise their salaries and the sums on offer elsewhere will continue to tempt them. As a result, fans of the Super League are likely to have to continue to endure the “talent drain” for the foreseeable future.