The showbiz end of the Premiership season is filled with glitzy black-tie awards nights but an escalating jobs crisis means a number of players are facing a far less glamorous finale.
Record numbers of established players will find themselves out of work over the coming weeks, forced into early retirement as clubs feel the squeeze of Covid-19 and salary cap cuts.
Some contract offers have slipped to £25,000 — well below the average UK salary — or nothing at all, leaving players facing a cost of living crisis, or seeking alternative career plans.
The Rugby Players’ Association believe that 70 players will be without a club this summer
‘The market is worse than it has ever been,’ said former England scrum-half Joe Simpson, who is looking at positions in the finance world. ‘The club owners dictate their costs and with the salary cap cuts starting to bite, clubs are having to cut their squads by two or three players.
‘With no relegation, there’s no fear factor from the bottom teams to pad out their squads. There’s not a great market or demand, so I could be in a new career in a couple of months’ time. I’ll stay in shape over the next four months and if something came up that would be brilliant.
‘I always knew the real world was coming at some point. I’ve got a diploma in economics. I feel like I’ve got three more seasons left in me but if I have to retire at 33 because there aren’t the jobs or economy for it then I’ll walk away with a fully functioning body and fond memories.’
Clubs are cutting at least a million pounds from their wage bill to come under the new £5million cap. Some clubs cannot even afford to hit their salary cap allowance, while opportunities in France have dried up due to quotas on domestic players.
Former England scrum-half Joe Simpson says that ‘the market is worse than it has ever been’
According to the Rugby Players’ Association, there will 70 players without a club this summer — 20 more than last year — and all of their members are offered a confidential counselling service. The pool of players out of work includes Mike Brown, Marcus Watson, Rob Miller, Mitch Eadie, Luther Burrell and Nick Auterac.
‘I was told in January that I wasn’t going to be kept on,’ said Auterac, the 29-year-old Northampton prop. ‘I didn’t really expect this to be my last season but at the moment there’s absolutely nothing. I want to keep playing but as things stand, I’m calling it a day. It’s tough because at 29 I’m arguably coming into a prop’s prime.
‘I’ve been in rugby since I was 15 years old and the older you get, the more you realise it’s a business. There’s a finance side to it and we’d be naïve to think the salary cap squeeze wouldn’t have an impact.
‘The squeeze is on the players in the middle, like myself, not the big high-end players. You need those high-end players to compete with clubs like Leinster or Toulouse.
Mike Brown (right) is among the pool of players who will be out of work at the end of the season
‘Clubs are squeezing out the middle men. Some players are getting offered lower salaries and it’s take it or leave it. A low-end first teamer is often on around £50k, which in the real world is awesome, but recently I’ve heard of boys being offered £25k. For a job where you get your head kicked in, ribs popped, broken knees and retire at 30, I’m not sure it’s worth it.
‘The reality is if you’re a better player then you’ll get better money and a contract. It’s like any industry.
‘I love rugby and everything it’s done for me but you can’t force a situation that’s not there. If I don’t find anything then I’m looking at a freelance career in the music industry. I’m really passionate about music production. Rugby’s been awesome to me. I’m not going to get bitter or twisted about it.’
All of these players will keep looking into the summer months. Living the nomadic life of a professional athlete, they are ready to up sticks and relocate at the drop of a contract offer.
Nick Auterac (left) was told in January that he would not be kept on by Northampton Saints
‘Most of those left in limbo are older and experienced — and therefore more expensive than young academy options — so must deal with the realities of schooling and mortgages.
‘It is a daunting time,’ said Wasps full-back Rob Miller, 32. ‘You always know it will come to an end one day but for some players, it’s probably just been accelerated a little bit.
‘Contract lengths are usually one, two or three years if you’re lucky. Towards the end of the contract it’s always in the back of your head, am I playing well enough to keep my place, am I fit? It’s always a nervous time regardless.
‘One season you could be ripping it up every week and next season you’re injured and you lose a contract. It’s a very unstable industry and with time you just learn to accept that.
Wasps full-back Rob Miller says that his career could come to an ‘abrupt’ end this summer
‘If you’re signing a contract in June or July then you don’t have long for the house search, enrolling kids in school or whatever. That’s just a reality of a rugby career and you accept that.
‘Your agent will offer you around to clubs in the league but the feedback at the moment is that the gigs aren’t there. For example, previously clubs had four or five hookers but now they might have three and an academy guy. Their hands are tied a little bit.
‘I’m still keen to play so we’ll just wait and see. I’ve massively enjoyed it but it’s always in your head that it will come to an end. It could be an abrupt end, which would be pretty savage, but rugby’s been brilliant to me.’