At the end of last month, a few hours after Bristol Bears had announced the stunning signing of Fiji international Semi Radradra on a three-year deal, Pat Lam presided over a bustling press day at Clifton RFC.
Understandably, given news of Saracens’ salary cap scandal and sanctions had broken just a few weeks previously, many questions centred around the financial intricacies of Bristol’s squad.
After all, the Premiership salary cap is currently due to remain at £6.4m for 2020-21, with up to an additional £600,000 dealt to each club for fielding academy players under the age of 24. Unless Lord Myners’ review of the regulations, announced on Thursday, imparts any immediate changes, next season will be the fourth consecutive campaign it has stayed at that mark.
A man of immense integrity, Lam is always generous with his insight. He confirmed that Radradra, who lit up Rugby World Cup 2019, would join from French side Bordeaux Bègles as one of Bristol’s marquee players. Every club can nominate two men whose wages are excluded from that season’s cap.
Lam went further, too. He insisted that he has found the cap “really easy” to negotiate. Then he was almost too honest. In a remarkable soliloquy, Bristol’s director of rugby reeled off no fewer than 22 players that fell into one of two camps. Either Lam had recruited them opportunistically on cut-price offers, or they had been on money that reflected their place on the periphery of the first-team.
They ranged from fly-half Callum Sheedy – “he was sent on loan to Jersey Reds and was third-choice 10 at the club” – to back-rower Luke Hamilton. “I picked him up when he was working in a restaurant in Wales,” said Lam.
In each case, the implication was clear. These individuals were not big-earners, leaving space in the salary cap for fatter contracts. Inadvertently, Lam’s quotes also reinforced a pattern among England’s top-tier squads: the shrinking middle.
Esportif Intelligence is the data division of the player management company Esportif. According to their research, average Premiership salaries have risen steadily year-on-year since 2017-18, despite the salary cap fix. The cash injection from CVC Capital Partners is just one reason for this. However, the share of individuals commanding a middle-ranking salary of between £70,000 and £140,000 has dropped.
In 2016-17, this bracket accounted for 39 per cent of the league’s players. This season, just 23 per cent earn that amount. Meanwhile, over the same period, the total share of senior players earning between £30,000 and £69,000 per year has risen from 22 per cent to 32 per cent.
Figures from Esportif Intelligence
The average age of players within the £70,000-140,000 band has dropped from 27 to 26. There is a heightened emphasis on developing young talent, as a significant hike of upgrades from academy to senior contracts illustrates. Ahead of 2019-20, 71 of these promotions occurred across the Premiership. The previous year saw just 33.
Continuing to use Bristol as an example, Lam mentioned that an impressive academy system, producing starlets such as hooker 20 year-old Will Capon and sparky teenage playmaker Ioan Lloyd, would bring wriggle-room.
Having said that, Mark McCall highlighted the difficulty of re-signing his stellar crop of homegrown Saracens, Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje among them, on the back of the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour. When a core of club players progress to Test level together, things get expensive. Wage demands quickly consume £600,000 of academy credits.
The squeeze on middle-earning squad players, often the honest grafters who need to step up during international periods, is coming from both above and below. Concerns have been raised at players’ board meetings of the Rugby Players’ Association.
“What we recognised last season was more senior Premiership players without a contract, or with their contract values cut, than ever before,” says Rich Bryan, the RPA’s player welfare director.
“We were able to speak to players in pre-season player forums and help them recognise that competition for contracts is probably greater than ever before, so to be prepared for that and for career transitions, whenever they may come.”
Potential solutions will be discussed by the RPA in the New Year, but any radical expansion of the salary cap – which Bryan stresses is crucial for “stability, sustainability, job security within the game” – will not be desirable.
“We have to keep tracking it,” Bryan adds. “Are these market forces? Is this the way the game is going? Does it need to be addressed? Can it be addressed?
“Is there more emphasis on academy players coming through? The squeeze in the middle is something we have seen and we will be continuing to monitor.”
Esportif Intelligence crunch numbers to determine salary bands per position, with an ‘A’ label outlining what a first-choice player would be expected to earn, ‘B’ a second-choice player and so on. Interestingly, there were just 30 new signings in the Premiership B and C bands for 2019-20, fewer than the 36 additions in the same area in 2018-19.
Conversely, the Pro 14 had an increase from 11 to 21 signings in the same two bands. Esportif analysts believe this is partly down to compensating for Rugby World Cup losses, which are on the whole more drastic for Pro 14 sides. Yet the figures suggest more claustrophobia for the Premiership’s middle.
Ultimately, a canny coaching set-up will trust its on-field methods to polish rough diamonds. But that must go hand-in-hand with sufficiently strong leadership to protect dressing room unity from jealousy and animosity.
“I don’t like to pay on potential or whatever,” explained Lam this week, elaborating on his penchant for underdogs. “It’s about what people have done. If you create a culture like that, you are asking people to work hard. Then they will get rewarded.
“You are looking for people who are motivated, who have dreams and are going to come through. If you get dropped or don’t get a contract, it’s only one person’s opinion. All the best stories in life about successful people are about what they had to do when they were down to come back up.
“Those are the kind of people you are looking for because they are the fighters who won’t quit. Then, if they’re coachable, you will get a bit of magic.”
Clearly, such moments of magic can help players enhance their value. But climbing the wage structure towards a shrinking middle must be a daunting experience.