Iain Morrison: Cap won’t stop Celtic exodus

Glasgow scrum-half Niko Matawalu will join Bath. Picture: SNS
Glasgow scrum-half Niko Matawalu will join Bath. Picture: SNS
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THERE is a row brewing in England, which may not be front page news but don’t think it isn’t affecting you, me and Celtic rugby. The brouhaha surrounds the Aviva Premiership’s salary cap.

Sale coach Steve Diamond recently insisted that some clubs, the finger-pointing is mostly aimed at Bath, are spending between £2 million and £2.5m above the £5.1m limit.

There are already as many as ten Italian Test players in the Premiership and they will be joined next year by further Guinness Pro12 recruits JJ Hanrahan, Rhys Priestland, Niko Matawalu and Sean Maitland. Others are expected to join this exodus of high-profile players to England, which is causing a crisis in the Pro12.

Ireland and Wales each have a policy of keeping their best at home to ensure player welfare and to guarantee access in between the weeks set aside by World Rugby for international matches. Ireland is helped by a beneficial tax regime which allows athletes who live in the country to regain 40 per cent of the income tax they have paid over their best ten-year period when they retire. It’s a big incentive to stay put, although not big enough, it appears, to keep Hanrahan at home.

The former Ireland under-20 stand-off’s decision to move to Northampton Saints stunned Ireland. He is a Munsterman by birth and it is in his blood. The Irish Times called his move “desperately deflating for Irish rugby” and so it is.

Hanrahan is just 22, the future of his position in Ireland’s game and very possibly Johnny Sexton’s eventual replacement. Hanrahan is a Kerry man, attended Rockwell College and was nominated as the IRB’s Young Player of the Year in 2012. He was expected to follow in Ronan O’Gara’s footsteps and stick with the side he supported as a kid – but something turned his head.

The story of Priestland is a little different – at 28 he is older and already has 32 Welsh caps to his name. Although he is a Welsh-speaker, what happened last autumn will surely have shaken his faith in his fellow countrymen. Replacing Dan Biggar off the bench against Australia, he was jeered by a small section of the Millennium Stadium crowd and copped criticism in the press. It was not what anyone would expect, especially someone whose international ledger is comfortably in the black.

His move to Bath, where he will partner Glasgow’s Niko Matawalu next year, still came as a shock, especially after Welsh coach Warren Gatland let it be known that he would prefer his international players in Wales, although he makes exceptions for the likes of Jamie Roberts and Mike Phillips. In light of that, the decision by Owen Williams, another bright young stand-off, to remain at Leicester Tigers was almost as big a slap in the chops to the Pro12 as Priestland’s decision to move.

Williams was once Priestland’s back-up at the Scarlets, he is the coming man in Welsh rugby but he recently signed a one-year extension with the Tigers, even after having his arm and several other extremities twisted hard. He may hear a few friendly accents soon, though, because Welshmen Liam Williams and Justin Tipuric have also been linked with a move to Leicester. Alex Cuthbert has turned down a “dual contract” with the Blues and the WRU, which would indicate that he is following George North across the Severn Bridge when his contract expires in a year’s time. Maitland, left, is heading to London Irish and now Tim Visser is dragging his feet over re-signing for Edinburgh.

Scotland is a slightly different animal because, with only two pro teams, Murrayfield is relatively relaxed about letting some expensive players head south where someone else can pick up the tab. If Greig Laidlaw had not signed for Gloucester, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne would not have made such an impact for Edinburgh this season. Had Kelly Brown still been at Glasgow, Rob Harley might not have forced his way into the reckoning.

Whether this is a recipe for growing pro-team attendances in Scotland is a moot point, especially when you consider the quality of the players who have left over the years… Jason White, John Leslie, Gregor Townsend, Simon Taylor, Nathan Hines, John Barclay and Kelly Brown, Richie Gray, Jim Hamilton and Euan Murray (in their prime) and Greig Laidlaw.

Murrayfield may be comfortable effectively having a third team of professional players in the Premiership at other people’s expense but, as far as the Pro12 is concerned, losing so many fans’ favourites to English clubs is a disaster, wrapped up in a catastrophe, smothered in a crisis.

It makes the Pro12 look like a feeder league, a development division and, sure enough, the Guinness-sponsored set-up is nowhere near as strong as it was a few years back. Glasgow have their best shot at the Pro12 title in years, not because Townsend’s team have improved hand over fist, but because Leinster and Munster have fallen below their Heineken Cup-winning best.

“The Pro12 has not had an easy passage,” chairman Gareth Davies admitted last week. “It’s wonderful that we are where we are but French and English clubs have much more money to invest and the Pro12 needs to respond and respond now. We can’t have people drifting away, there must be ways of keeping them here and the ones that go are not always happy.

“We need to go forward with confidence, not fear, because we have a unique competition that is shared by four different nations, three of whom had to change their structure to fit in. Ireland always had the four provinces. Now we need to pay attention to the future and reassess things going forward or there will be severe difficulties.”

Williams recognises the problem but he is a little light on solutions except to “re-examine revenues streams”. Let’s hope something happens to halt the flood because, after winning five of the last ten European Cups, the Celtic Tigers have lost their teeth. Of the seven Pro12 teams in the new European Rugby Champions Cup (ERCC), only Leinster would qualify for the quarter-finals if the pool stages ended after five rounds and Pro12 teams had won just 13 of their 35 matches ahead of this weekend.

It is difficult to blame the players for making the move – Laidlaw is said to have doubled his wages by signing at Kingsholm – but it might not all be down to cash. The venues and crowds in the Aviva are bigger and, while they have London Welsh as whipping boys, at least England’s top teams don’t have to suffer a three-hour flight just to play them as the Celts must do with Treviso.

England’s northern outposts, Newcastle Falcons and Sale Sharks, need a strict salary cap to help the less well off compete with Bath supremo Bruce Craig’s millions. The Pro12 needs a strict salary cap in England or its very existence will be questioned.

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