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The Mystery of European Rugby

by Emily Ruscoe

22nd May 2012

Heineken Cup trophyWITH a flurry of finals occurring, we have and will see some exciting and skilful matches between teams who have the top players. However, there has been much talk about salary capping and the fact that other regional sides do not have to worry about this whilst English teams are the most restricted. The salary cap was implemented in order to level the playing field between teams who vary in wealth. It would be unfair, and very dull, if teams won because they brought all the best players due to having a rich benefactor. The ERC has been dominated by French and Irish sides, and some have suggested that this is because they have lured the best players with the promise of higher earnings. But does this affect the domestic leagues or European rugby dramatically?

Aviva Premiership trophyThe Aviva Premiership has a limit of £4 million, which has been the same for the last 3 seasons, but also has added a new feature this season. The Academy Credits scheme allows clubs to spend an £30,000 for each player it brings up from its academy into its senior squad, for up to 8 players. This will have affected the selection process this year, giving many rising stars their big break into the world of English domestic rugby. For the finalists of the tournament, this has led them to find some bright prospects among their ranks, without whom they may have struggled. Leicester Tigers beat Saracens to make it into the last round, and were particularly happy to have George Ford at fly-half. The young newcomer - who is the son of former England defence coach, Mike Ford - George Ford Leicester Tigershas been pulled up for the Tigers’ academy and has proved himself to be extremely useful and mature for his years, collecting 14 points out of their total 24 in the match. Harlequins have also found some talented additions such as winger Sam Smith and back rower Luke Wallace grabbing permanent senior squad spots. The scheme has caused many sides to reach into their untapped resources and has certainly been a good step forward for home-grown talent. Meanwhile, the salary cap has not affected the clubs’ abilities to recruit famous players too, making the competition exciting and diverse.

RDPro12 TrophyThe same can be said for the Welsh RaboDirect Pro 12 as of next season, who are having a £3.5 million cap added as of next season. Currently, none of the Rabo teams have a limit placed upon them, but the WRU has introduced the measure in order to “encourage greater investment in local talent”. Again the scheme does not include academy players who have been developed by the side and is hoped to stop Welsh players moving aboard and then, inadvertently, missing out of international team selection. Some will be concerned that the Welsh teams will be at a disadvantage in the Rabo tournament against squads who have no limits placed upon them, but I believe that this may bode the beginning of a new era in the proud tradition in Welsh home-grown rugby. Some would say that English sides have not done well in the ERC competitions due to being held back by the salary cap, but looking at how the Welsh sides faired; this simply cannot be the cause of their bombing out so early on. Ospreys are about to face Leinster Rugby in the final, and both sides have their share of expensive players who range in nationality, but many will be wondering if next year any Welsh sides will be making it this far with more academy additions. My opinion: they should have more faith in their young compatriots who have trained hard and clearly show potential.

Top 14 TrophyIn the Top 14, the salary cap is considerably higher at €8.7 million for the 2011/12 season. Many will point to some very well-known names heading over to France as a sign of the lure of greater wages pulling away talent. However, many of these big names have moved towards the end of their career such as Jonny Wilkinson, Simon Shaw, Bakkies Botha and Matt Giteau, and French sides still have team sheets mainly made with French constituents.  Of course there are several players that have moved to France in the prime of their career, as seen with a few of the Welsh internationals, however, the same can be said for any club capped or not. All sides have their flown-in players who they have spotted from afar and, for the sake of the economy of domestic teams, this sort of expenditure is necessary to keep the market from stagnating.

Jonny Wilkinson ACC Final 2012The ERC has been dominated by French sides and this is not due to their extra monetary capabilities but due to their style of play and dedication to the game. Whilst Toulon have the likes of Wilkinson and Steffon Armitage in their ranks, their opponents for the Amlin Challenge Cup title, Biarritz Olympique, do not have such prestige from abroad, with perhaps the exception of World Cup -winner Iain Balshaw.  And yet it was the predominantly French side from the Basque region who ran away with the title this season, and no the monied Toulon. There is a lot to be said for the way French sides play and this is why they do well in the ERC, not because they pump in more cash.

The Irish had a Heineken Cup Final to remember at Twickenham, with Ulster battling through the Semis against the odds and Leinster squaring up to them, who have done especially well this season domestically too. They have no cap and there has been no talk of introducing one either, leaving the clubs free to pay as they please. Heineken Cup Final 2012 Gordon D'Arcy & Brian O'DriscollBut does this make a difference? Both teams have a mixture of international and local talent, and have a strong academy. Ulster were not expected to make it this far and did extremely well to beat Muster in the quarter finals and Edinburgh in the Semis. The importance factor is not how much the team is worth, but their ability to handle pressure and their drive to play a hard game. And it was Leinster that convincingly took their Northern Irish brothers to task and claimed a third trophy in four years as champions of Europe.

It is my belief that salary cap is a good thing for encouraging the picking of home-grown talent from academy sides and thus investing in the future of a club. However, I do not think it makes a substantial difference in a team’s capability of winning a tournament. It is likely that further limits will be put in place for more sides as time goes on, mainly for financial reasons, but until then it is not necessary for those who are restricted to moan. Understandably, the players themselves do have to worry about the short career they have as professional sportsmen, and therefore the commercial side is a major concern in the choices they make. Rugby’s focus, however, should be on the play and the players’ dedication to the club, not on how much they are being paid.