Rob Baxter shoots down central contracts – but offers a different solution
Rob Baxter remains dubious over the value of central contracts, insisting that more fluid player movement between leagues is a far more important solution for rugby union in England.
Senior figures in the Premiership are clearly divided over central contracts, with Saracens boss Mark McCall stating this week that they should be “top of the agenda” for the Rugby Football Union.
“In my opinion central contracts should be top of the agenda,” McCall said. “If there is an opportunity to do something a bit differently and for club and country to work very closely together over a particular player. Maybe share his salary? We all know the top international players will be unavailable for half your programme anyway."
The concept continues to split opinion across the country. Depending on one’s outlook, such deals have been viewed as both red herrings and silver bullets. Despite facing up to a remarkable exodus at Exeter as senior players such as Sam Simmonds, Jack Nowell and Luke Cowan-Dickie opt for moves abroad this summer, Baxter believes there is another way.
Rather than introduce central contracts, he would bring in additional payments to appease fringe internationals picked in England’s Elite Player Squad [EPS], giving those individuals an income boost that would not be conditional on Test appearances.
“If we’re saying that we need central contracts over the fear of England players leaving because of money issues, I wouldn’t say that there was a need for central contracts,” said the Chiefs director of rugby on Thursday.
“A simple answer is that if you get picked in the EPS, there is a retainer payment rather than the payment being based around match-day selections. If that was at the right level, it could potentially bridge the gap between what’s available in a £5m cap at the moment, and even when we go up to £6.4m, compared to what someone can pick up in France and Japan.
“What it means is that a lot of the guys who are leaving are the guys in that fringe area. They don’t know if they are going to pick up regular payments and caps, but they know they are in and around the squad. A squad payment or retainer for that season, I think could make a considerable difference. That wouldn’t not a central contract. Again, it doesn’t need to be a massively complex scenario we need to find.”
In the wake of an underwhelming Six Nations for Steve Borthwick’s side, Baxter was cool on any need for more England A fixtures as a bridging mechanism between the Premiership and Test level. He suggested that “a little bit of changeover” was inevitable in the wake of Eddie Jones’ departure because the latter “was a big personality” who “did things his way”.
“Right here and now, Steve is at the head of a new coaching group and they need to be on their cycle for a bit longer,” Baxter added. “They need another year or two and you will see where they want to head, how they’re aligning with clubs and how players are developing.”
For Baxter, the most significant, and cheapest, improvement would be to deregulate the process of loaning Premiership players out to Championship clubs; thereby making it more straightforward for top-tier professionals to find game-time over the course of the season.
Exeter won the Premiership Cup just last weekend, beating London Irish 24-20 in a final that went to extra time, yet Baxter stressed the need to be creative in order to carve out further opportunities. Loan moves and dual-registrations have been limited in order not to avoid compromising the integrity of the Championship. Baxter indicated that such thinking was old-fashioned.
“It’s to make the player movement between leagues far easier and far more fluid,” he said, when asked for a single proposal to invigorate the English system. “One thing that’s pretty clear is that a lot of the development process has to be carefully managed by clubs, around how you get game-time.
“You have the Premiership Cup, and we’ve come through really competitive games in the semi-final and final, with young players playing in front of crowds. That’s fantastic, but the reality is that you have to manage those guys at other times in the year. A Championship club can only play so many dual-registered or loan players in any one game. It’s quite restrictive, the player movement.
“I’m a believer in promotion and relegation, but there isn’t much at the moment, rightly or wrongly, so the argument that it would affect the Championship – if a lot of players went into one team – are dying a death. If you look at most Premiership squads, if we could select on a Monday and then all those not involved, whether they were ex-internationals or academy players, could have a game if you had links with two or three local clubs."