Wasps’ success over the last few years was completely predictable, and sadly, so are the difficulties they are facing now. They are both intrinsically related to the salary cap.
When Derek Richardson came on board with the financial support he was willing to bring it was immediately clear that we could dramatically improve the quality of our squad over a few years. As contracts expired, and players retired they were replaced with better, more expansive players.
A Sprinkling of Stardust
We brought in the likes of Charles Piutau, George Smith, Willie le Roux, and Kurtley Beale. They dragged the rest of the squad kicking and screaming up the table and a lot of the existing squad put their hands up and showed that they too were of a similar class. Others didn’t, and moved on.
We moved from scrapping to avoid relegation to extra time in the premiership final in the space of a few years. The same few years where we moved from filling the teamsheets with the players we could get for the money we had, to filling the team with the best players money could buy.
It’s no surprise that hitting the limits of the salary cap from being one of the poorest teams in the league had such a big success. But the downside of that was that all of our players were suddenly part of a majorly successful team. They not only deserved more money, but were massively more visible.
Suddenly earning £500k a year at Wasps wasn’t unthinkable. It was perfectly possible.
However the cap means that we have no chance of retaining all the players that brought us that success.
That means we are going to lose players we’d rather keep. And disappointingly other teams. Those teams we see as our direct rivals are going to gain those same players.
The Direct Effect of our Success
In practice what this means is that the level of talent we brought in to the premiership and developed from our own academy is going to disperse across the rest of the teams. And it isn’t just us this is going to happen to.
In fact you could argue that this is exactly the point of the cap. It doesn’t just exist to stop one or two teams buying all the stars. We know that doesn’t work – look at what happened to London Welsh – It is designed to force talent to disperse. It won’t just make the league more competitive by reducing the ability of the best teams, but by increasing the abilities of the worst (currently) teams.
This is why Nick Eastwood talked about Dai planning for the next two years. It’s also why McCall was calling for the abolition of the cap a year or two ago. He could see this coming and it’s going to affect Sarries and Exeter as much as it does us at Wasps.
I think there will be another unforeseen effect of the cap though.
An Unforseen Effect of the Salary Cap
The growing sponsorship money, and the growing popularity of rugby with the public at large has caused an exponential rise in wages. Five years ago the idea of a player earning £700k a year was laughable. Now there are several who are looking at that sort of money. And £500k is well within reach for a multi capped international.
That is exactly what is forcing teams to let players go that they’d rather keep. But it is also forcing them to look to develop their own players. Whether they are coming through their academy, being brought up from Championship teams, or more worryingly tempted from poorer countries by the big money on offer. The Pacific islands are prime territory for the Southern Hemisphere nations to recruit from. But less so for the Northern teams. That will change.
The cap will even out talent across the premiership. But it will also damage the nations who in rugby terms are still “developing”. More and more talented youngsters will be tempted away to try for the massive salaries that exist. But in a somewhat ironic twist those salaries may well become rarer and rarer.
If we look at a senior squad size of 40, the current salary cap of £7M means that if we exclude two players it leaves £184,000 per person. Obviously there are allowances for academy players, and other creative ways to adjust the cap, but for every one player at £500k that leaves two other players with nothing at all. Or every player losing several thousand.
The Possible End Result
One of two things will happen.
Either the cap will go. The teams with money to spend will eventually refuse to carry on bringing in or developing players they are not able to keep.
Or the wages of players will be driven down.
My personal opinion is that the cap will eventually become irrelevant. There are those who argue it already is. The regulations are vague enough that any good lawyer can argue around them. As we found out recently. And the idea of ring fencing the premiership will largely replace the functions of the cap. If the teams at the bottom end of the league can’t be relegated and suffer the massive financial penalties associated with that, then what does it matter if some teams spend more than others?
However before all the dust settles and we actually find out how it will play out in the long term we will have to deal with the mess it causes.
And that’s going to hurt Wasps more than most.
What do you think? Discuss it on our forums here.