Rugby's Aviva Premiership is on the riseCharlie Stone

The last two weekends have seen the start of rugby’s European Champions Cup, with some great matches and some eye-catching performances. Saracens’ victory against Toulon was particularly memorable, as it was the first time that the French giants had been beaten at home in the Champions Cup. It was like the Saracens’ forwards were wearing All Black, such was the quality of the skills on show.

Yet something which stood out was the number of ‘star players’ fielded by the Aviva Premiership’s teams. This season, more than ever before, Premiership clubs have signed some of world rugby’s best players, leading to a hugely competitive league and, hopefully, competitive European campaign.

Wasps have perhaps led the way, having signed the likes of Kurtley Beale, Willie le Roux (though neither have yet played), Danny Cipriani, and Kyle Eastmond, while Leicester have brought in South Africa’s JP Pietersen and Australian Matt Toomua. Big back-rowers Schalk Burger and Louis Picamoles have made an impact at Saracens and Northampton respectively, and Sale have signed Welsh veteran Mike Phillips from Racing 92.

Outside of the Champions Cup, Premiership side Bath have brought in Welsh stalwarts Luke Charteris and Taulupe Faletau, along with the hugely talented Kahn Fotuali’I, while Worcester have captured Ben Te’o and South African speedster Francois Hougaard.

It was one of the busiest summers of transfers in Premiership history, when, in previous seasons, many of these players would probably have chosen to play in France, as clubs such as Toulon and Racing 92 put together their squads of ‘Galacticos’. This must largely be attributed to the £1m increase in the Premiership’s salary cap this season, to £6.5m, which will rise again to £7m for the 2017/18 season, bringing it much closer to the French limit of 10€m (approximately £8.4m). With this increased financial incentive, the gruelling French TOP 14 season – which spans from 20th August through to 4th June – has become less appealing, and the Premiership evermore attractive.

In addition to the £6.5m, Premiership clubs are allowed two ‘Marquee Players’ whose salaries sit outside the cap. This enables clubs to recruit world-class talent, while up to £500,000 is available to clubs in the form of Home Grown Player Credits, striking a balance between the recruitment of top players from abroad and the development of English rugby. Teams are also allowed to spend an extra £80,000 on their wage bill per player called up for England international duty.

This balance is so important, and appears to have been struck well in the Premiership. Having two ‘Marquee Players’ allows teams to boost their profile and to supplement their squads, while ensuring that English players are given the chance to develop.

If there were no limit on players’ salaries, clubs would undoubtedly find themselves in unsustainable debt, and the league would likely become uncompetitive. The strength of a club would rely entirely on its investors’ wealth and, unlike in football, English rugby does not have dozens of billionaires willing to pump endless funds into its teams. It is therefore a positive step that the salary cap will remain at £7m for three successive seasons from next year.

The benefits of this system are clear at Wasps, who have made some great signings over the past two seasons. Last year, Marquee signing Charles Piutau made a devastating impact, helping them to reach the semi-finals in both the Premiership and European Champions Cup. George Smith was also on a one-year deal and hugely influential, not only around the pitch but on the development of Wasps’ back row. Thomas Young emerged as an outstanding number 7, while Sam Jones, Nathan Hughes and James Haskell improved markedly, demonstrating the importance of being able to bring in world-class players.

Wasps are, in fact, one of the richest clubs in Europe now, following the opening of their retail bond in May 2015, but they remain full of bright young English players. Kurtley Beale may have become the highest-paid player ever in the Premiership, with a £750,000-per-year deal, but 14 out of the 15 players who started Wasps’ opening game of the season were England-qualified.

This shows a system which is working well, in contrast to the TOP 14 in France, where the huge number of foreign players, particularly at clubs such as Toulon, Racing 92 and Montpellier, has had a disastrous effect on the French national team. Parallels are clear with the Premier League and the England football team.

The TOP 14 is fuelled by multi-millionaire owners and massive TV deals: very few of rugby’s biggest names are outside of the reach of France’s elite clubs. Japanese superstar Ayumu Goromaru has reportedly become the highest-paid player in the world, having signed a deal with Toulon worth over £1.4m a year, while All Black legend Dan Carter earns similar at Racing 92.

Several of the world’s other highest-paid players are also at Toulon, where Matt Giteau earns £900,000 and Ma’a Nonu earns £600,000. What’s more, owners have found ways of circumventing the TOP 14 salary cap, by offering players additional income from image rights and other endorsements – which don’t come under the cap in France – allowing their clubs to put together such talented squads.

The league’s attraction, though, has been reduced somewhat thanks to the Aviva Premiership’s new four-year TV deal with BT Sport, thought to be worth around £70m per season. This deal, as well as greater attendance and increased investment from sponsors, has grown the league’s financial clout considerably.

The effect of this has been seen domestically and internationally: five English teams made it to the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup last season and the England national team won a Six Nations Grand Slam. Success breeds success, and the exciting rugby that English clubs have started to play has clearly enticed more top players to come and play in the Premiership. With the right controls, this is good news for English rugby fans.

It is not quite such good news for the Pro 12 and Super Rugby, who simply cannot compete. They do not generate the revenue or investment that the French and English leagues do, meaning they struggle to retain some of their talent.  In fact, the Pro 12 is rumoured to be in discussion with American investors about the possibility of making the league Trans-Atlantic, in order to stimulate growth and attract players.

Such desperate measures reflect the hard reality of modern professional sport, where money seems to be everything. Only time will tell us of the full impact of this shift in rugby wealth

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