As the financial picture for Cardiff Rugby becomes clear ahead of the 2023/24 campaign, the outlook for squad building and the capability of being anywhere near competitive is looking bleaker than bleak.
With the Professional Rugby Agreement (PRA) set to be signed this week the Blue and Blacks are effectively signing away any chance of the club pushing for even the most minor definition of success. It cuts a wage bill down from reportedly as high as £7.5m to £5.2m for next season, and then £4.5m for the 2024/25 campaign and beyond.
The added element of trouble for Cardiff is that a number of high earning internationals, who previously accrued payments worth 80% of their wages from the Welsh Rugby Union, are under contract at the club beyond this summer. With those 80% payments stopping, all of those wages will now come out of the £5.2m budget.
This leaves Dai Young, the rugby management and the club’s senior management with a massive headache around how you build a squad for 2023/24.
To continue to contract all of Dillon Lewis, Josh Navidi, Taulupe Faletau, Tomos Williams, Josh Adams and Liam Williams – players who are nailed on Wales squad members when fit – in a Rugby World Cup year when they will be away for a vast majority of the season with the national team is absolute madness from a value for money sense.
They will swallow up a high percentage of the wage budget but probably be available for fewer than 10 games all season, leaving very little money available with which to contract the rest of the squad who will play in the majority of matches.
However, there also has to be considerations around the quality they add on-the-field when they are available, and perhaps more importantly, their commercial value. Brands want to be associated with these well-known players so are more likely to sponsor the club, while supporters outside the hardcore minority are more likely to turn up to see the best players around, especially the next generation of fan.
This is the big debate now for the management at the Arms Park. Do they stick with the big names and try to build off their commercial presence over the next few years, or do they move on and try to build around a core group of young talent and put full focus on the Academy?
For my money the answer is the latter of those two options. Obviously it is much easier to make that call sat outside the bubble with a blog to put my ideas out there, but there just seems to be more logic behind that option than the other, even if it is the least worst rather than the best.
From a competitive standpoint getting a slightly higher quality of player contracted across the wider squad offers a better chance of being competitive throughout a season as a whole, and building up around a new core of talented youngsters aided by some experienced older heads hopefully puts Cardiff in a better position to hopefully come out of the other side of this mess.
Then on the human front the departure of big name internationals should free up some wage budget with which to ensure those players who are staying can be offered at least close to a fair deal, rather than players having to take up to £200,000 wage cuts as is being reported. The departing players will not be short of suitors or good monetary offers.
The side point on that is the section of the new PRA which reportedly states that clubs could be financially penalised if they are not adjudged to have attempted to retain a Welsh international in their squad. Now, in the circumstances which Cardiff find themselves it would be borderline immoral for the WRU to actually follow through on this should a big name depart.
However, it may well be the case that any fine would not actually make the deal bad business. For example, if Josh Adams were to depart for Lyon this summer, possibly bringing a transfer fee in to the club and freeing up around £350k in wages, then any fine less than that total could still be accepted for the good of squad building.
That just sums up the ridiculous situation that Cardiff have become stuck in though. Whereby receiving a fine from the WRU for selling a valuable and high earning player is actually better business than simply operating on the budget set through the Professional Rugby Board because the governing body is refusing to invest properly in professional rugby.
Ultimately whichever path the Blue and Blacks take sees us end up in a position whereby competitiveness is off the table. That is the unavoidable truth. All the management can do is try to take decisions which, in the first instance, keep the club afloat, and then desperately attempt to put us in a position to come out of the other side in the best shape possible.
Unfortunately a lot of tough, and probably heartless, decisions will need to be taken to achieve that.