20/20/30 Will Cripple Investment in Youth

Richard Shanks has taken it upon himself as Vice-Chairman – Warrington Wolves Supporters’ Trust Squadbuilder Scheme to put in writing his feelings of the potential flaws in the 20/20/30 rule on the game on Rugby League in the Europe. The below article has been mailed to the RFL directly.

At our Supporters’ Trust player-of-the-year awards this week, at which Wolves utility player Gary Hulse picked up a bucketful of gongs, we also heard from Warrington coach Paul Cullen how the timing and impact of the 20/20/30 rule has meant that he has been unable to offer contracts at this stage to Gary, or, indeed, to Ian Sibbit and Jerome Guisett, who, it has already been announced, will be moving on.

Whilst being frustrated by the rules in his capacity as Warrington coach, it is fair to say that he sees a benefit for the sport as a whole by the evening out of the competition that a properly structured salary cap and player quota system would entail.

Whilst taking on board everything that Paul offered on the subject, my mind was set thinking about the efficacy of the ruling as it stands at present and the effect that it may have on the investment by clubs and supporters alike in the development of young players.

At Warrington, we have a flagship activity within the Supporters’ Trust, a Squadbuilder scheme which was devised, unlike most schemes with similar names, to identify, nurture and develop young players within the town at all levels, with the intention of supporting the club’s initiatives both in principal and financially on youth development. In the two-and-a-half-years that it has been in operation, Squadbuilder members have made contributions of nearly £30,000 to sponsor young Super League players contracts (Gary Hulse, indeed, being our first sponsored player), to provide scholarship bursaries to members of the junior academy side and to support the Under-16 Scholarship squad, the Service Area teams, local school rugby league and the junior and amateur clubs within the town. With the absence of local players within the Warrington Super League side, it was founded under the banner “keeping local players local” and on our strong belief that the future of the game as a whole is best served by the development of our own talent.

Soon after Squadbuilder was founded, Saint Helens reported losses of £1.75 million for the two years in which they enjoyed the success of back-to-back Super League titles, a World Club Championship and a Challenge Cup triumph and all the additional income flows that they brought. These sort of losses (regularly experienced around Super League and, indeed, within our own club) are not sustainable and strengthened our resolve to advocate the development of young local talent in an increasingly pivotal role in the long-term planning of the future within Warrington and the game as a whole. The game had not heeded the lessons of Widnes (whose financial mismanagement had material impact in their exclusion from the first 6 years of Super League) and Wigan (who were fortunate to have had a tidy piece of real estate at Central Park and a sugar-daddy in Dave Whelan to finance them to the next step). There was a risk (and there still is) that clubs were willing to mortgage their future and very existence in the quest for short-term success. We saw youth development, allied (by necessity) to a financially-sustainable level of quality imports, as the way forward.

The salary cap was introduced for two primary reasons – to assist in the levelling out of the competition and to impose upon the clubs a financial probity which it was palpably clear that they were unable or unwilling to do voluntarily. To a certain extent, it seems to be working – Hull, for instance, seem to have broken into the Big Four, although this may have much to do with an increased earnings potential which the move to the Kingston Communications Stadium has meant for them. They are now one of the 5 clubs (obviously including Leeds, Bradford, Saints and Wigan) who are spending at or close to the maximum cap of £1.8 million.

At Warrington, whilst we mirror to a certain extent Hull’s situation with our own new stadium this year and with the added financial commitment of Simon Moran, it is understood that we will limit our playing budget for 2005 to an amount still nearly £0.5 million short of that maximum. As a club, we are committed to three major factors which should be given an environment in which they can dovetail nicely together:-

Financial astuteness and caution

The need to provide for the fans of the club a side which can compete with the top sides in 2005

A continuation and, indeed, enhancement of the youth development

A programme which provides a tangible career path for young players

It seems massively anomalous to me that a club who will be spending for 2005 a self-imposed playing budget some £0.5 million less than the maximum amount allowable and being spent by the big 5, should be restricted in its options by the arbitrariness which is inherent in the 20/20/30 rule. This is merely having the effect of squeezing out young players like Ian Sibbit and Gary Hulse (who both came up through the club’s academy ranks) either to Super League clubs who have not made the same kind of investment in youth as has been made at Warrington (and other clubs like Wigan), or into the desert of the National Leagues, where, because of the relative lack of resources, their potential will falter (the number of Super League players who have dropped down and later returned to the top flight is few).

With a maximum salary cap of £1.8 million and a rule which limits the number of players who can be earning more than £20,000 per annum, the only realistic restriction and squeeze is going to be at the bottom end of that range, which adversely effects the long-term development of young players committed to their local club and which, given time to fester, the willingness of the clubs and, in our own case (through Squadbuilder) the supporters to invest in youth. Even those younger players who are on contracts less than £20,000 per annum but who have featured in more than 30 Super League games, are now being squeezed. Whilst I understand to a certain extent the intention of using the rules to prevent the stockpiling of players within a small number of clubs, the current rule has one major and obvious flaw.

The big clubs who are spending at or near the salary cap limit of £1.8 million do so by commanding a larger share of the “star” players on the larger salaries. With the best will in the world, it is the quality and quantity of those high-earners within the big 5 which provides the real difference between being a competitive side and one which can realistically be considered as Super League title contenders. The 20/20/30 rules provide no restriction on the number of such players that each club can have – there is no stratification of salaries above the basic £20,000 limit. The system makes no attempt to limit the clubs at the top end of the salary scale – the end which, in the immediacy, is going to dictate the number of clubs who will be able to challenge for the game’s honours. And if the immediacy provides the results which the big clubs want, the immediacy will turn into permanence because they won’t relish a change.

If you want to even out the competition by the imposition of rules (which, in principle, I’m not against), those rules should apply over the whole spectrum. If we continue to allow the big clubs to use their salary cap limit to recruit all the “star” players, but place restrictions below that level, we will never achieve that equalisation. We will provide disincentives for clubs like Warrington and their committed supporters to invest in youth – after all, if Squadbuilder members are being asked to fund young players for the wider benefit of the game and, more specifically, for the benefit of other clubs whose own management and fans are not dipping into their financial resources for that purpose, what’s the point? Add to that the fact that the big 5 will continue to be free from restriction in the number of big-name players they can recruit, and the fans of Warrington, Wakefield and any other club which may break into the top six will view the evening out of the competition as the Holy Grail that will never be achieved.

To a certain extent, the RFL have already placed a restriction on the ability of the top clubs to stockpile players by setting a maximum spend of £1.8 million on salary cap, even for those clubs whose gross income on the 50% rule would otherwise imply a higher cap. On the assumption that all clubs are reasonably accurate in assessing the worth of players, all those clubs who can spend their £1.8 million will get value for their £1.8 million, whether they wish to invest in youth or bias their budget towards the more highly-paid stars. A club with a gross revenue of £5 million no longer has available to it the extra £700,000 which would enable it to achieve this stockpiling of players.

So, if the RFL haven’t got the bottle to take on the big 5 and set limitations on the number of players which they can recruit at the higher salary levels, they should allow all clubs to spend their salary caps as they see fit – the 20/20/30 rule should go and that will allow clubs like our own to develop a plan, based on the encouragement of youth, which will enable us to challenge on our own terms and on the basis of our own beliefs for admission to the Big 5. And, at the same time, the funding by the clubs and supporters alike in youth development will be assured – and Super League will not run the risk of losing committed, enthusiastic and players of potential like Gary Hulse.

Richard Shanks

Vice-Chairman – Warrington Wolves Supporters’ Trust Squadbuilder Scheme

If you wish to add you’re support to the Warrington Supporters Trust’s stand on this, please email to answers@squadbuilder.co.uk and we will collate all your feedback.