South Africa’s flow of players to leagues in Ireland, France and Britain has been steady over the past decade. It’s grown from a small brook into a mid-size stream, but that growing gush could become a raging torrent if a new proposal in the English game takes off.
This week it emerged that global equity firm CVC Capital Partners have made a £275m (R5.2bn) proposal to buy a 51% stake in the Premier Rugby Ltd (PRL), the organisation that owns and runs the English Premiership.
CVC are the company that owned F1 for a decade and who made a huge success for the sport and for their own earnings during their venture into motorsport.
For this proposal to become reality, England’s top clubs would all have to agree to the deal, which will net them each £17m (R323m) in a once-off payment outside of existing broadcast deals and sponsorships.
Considering all but the Exeter Chiefs ran at a financial loss last year, and many clubs haven’t been profitable for years, this potential investment will not only save the English game, but also reinvigorate it.
Of course, the details of the proposal and the pound of flesh CVC will want to exact for their investment is not in the public domain yet. But make no mistake, if this deal comes off it will be a game changer for rugby in a similar way to Sky’s huge investment in English football in 1992 with the establishment of the Premier League.
There is also little doubt that a private controlling interest in English club rugby, already one of the top two most influential leagues in the world, would have massive ramifications for the southern hemisphere.
At this stage, details of the proposal are unclear but for an investment group to plough that much money into a league, its ambitions must be lofty. They’re not doing it for the love of the game.
CVC will want to make the Premiership the best league in the world. That means the best players and coaches, the best stadiums and marketing, and the biggest global audience.
They will renegotiate broadcast deals and look at new audiences as well as making believers of the current rugby establishment. And all of this hinges on having the best product, which itself comes back to the players and coaches.
For the PRL to become the rugby version of the EPL, first port of call will be New Zealand, South Africa and the Pacific islands for the best players.
New Zealand has for so long managed to hang on to its top players because of the power of the All Blacks. More money and a chance to play in a league with the best players will test that loyalty.
Initially, high profile names and established stars will be the focal point of selling the newly-branded league. Having Kieran Read, Beauden Barrett, Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth and Brodie Retallick in action weekly would be key to short- and medium-term ambitions for a rich and highly ambitious league.
But in the long-term the consequences down south are even more worrying. Or not, depending on how we all react to it.
English clubs, or the PRL itself, might establish links with top South African and NZ schools, skimming off the cream of young players before they even have a chance to play for their school first XV.
Well-funded academies both in the southern hemisphere and in England could become the pathway for young players into the biggest league in the world with agents and mentors looking to send their best talent to the PRL rather than languish at home.
That scenario might still some way off, but change is coming. Ambitious clubs, owners and coaches, armed with fat wallets and exposure to the biggest global rugby audience, are going to be proactive.
They are not going to wait to sign expensive 22-year-old players when they can sign 100 talented teenagers and aim for a one-in-ten return on their relatively small investment.
If it comes off, and CVC lives up to its track record in F1, then the next generation of rugby player and fan, will be participating in, and consuming, an entirely new, highly professional product.