‘It could be five years before rugby finds its feet again’: England star Ben Youngs fears rugby is on brink of long recession despite returning to training at Leicester this week
- Youngs returned to training and socially-distanced fitness tests in the June heat
- Many rugby players’ wages were permanently cut by 25 per cent on Thursday
- One danger of the cut to English rugby’s salary cap is an exodus of players
- He has the incentive of becoming the second ever Englishman to win 100 caps
With phone calls from Eddie Jones about home schooling and the start of socially-distanced training, it has been anything but business as usual for Ben Youngs over the past week.
Throwing in the fact that many rugby players’ wages were permanently cut by 25 per cent on Thursday, the sport has found itself in uncharted territory.
‘The party’s over,’ said one of Youngs’ England team-mates. It is an opinion shared by the majority of current players.
It has been anything but business as usual for Leicester and England scrum-half Ben Youngs
While clubs rushed through cut-price deals, the sport’s power brokers have been desperately searching for a global season to help make ends meet. Rugby has enjoyed its boom years but is the sport now on the brink of recession? Has the golden goose finally flown its Twickenham nest?
‘There are a lot of businesses that are going to face hard times at the moment,’ said Youngs, the Leicester Tigers scrum-half. ‘Retail opened up on Monday and you see all these projections on the news. It’s pretty clear that things will take a while to recover. Rugby’s no different. The game’s grown hugely since I first started. It only went professional in 1995, which isn’t a huge amount of time, and there was always going to be some point that the huge growth levelled off.
‘Nobody wants pay cuts, but you’ve got to understand the situation. Rugby’s grown rapidly and it’s got to find its feet again. I almost see this as a bit of a cooling-off period before it kicks off again. If you’re a 20-year-old now, by the time you’re 24 or 25 it will start to climb again, I’m sure. As a player, all you can do is crack on. We want to make sure there is a Leicester Tigers at the end of it… every player feels that way.’
Youngs has the incentive of becoming the second ever Englishman to win 100 caps
Youngs returned to training on Monday, where he was welcomed back to sweaty, socially-distanced fitness tests in the June heat. Summer rugby is mooted as one of the avenues to move the game forward — and Youngs believes the coming months could serve as a trial run.
‘Anything that’s going to make rugby more desirable to watch or play is a benefit,’ he said. ‘Look at the impact of playing Twenty20 cricket in the summer, with its party atmosphere. Rugby in the summer, I imagine, would have a very similar sort of feel.
‘With everything that’s going on at the moment — people trying to get the global calendar together — maybe it will turn into a summer sport. I don’t have any problems with that at all. You might get better weather that allows for better tracks and a faster game. Conditioning wise, you’d be fitter. I totally see the benefits in it. It may change the size of blokes slightly! Equally, there’s nothing wrong with a windy Friday night and a bit of a northern slugfest.
There is a danger of more players following George Kruis and Chris Robshaw abroad
‘If everything goes to plan and we return to play on August 15, we’ll get a bit of a feel for what it would be like to play in the summer months. The most important thing is to keep trying to grow the game. Maybe things like a global calendar and summer rugby will inject all those opportunities to regenerate. The powers that be will make those decisions. As players, we’ll just adapt to whatever’s best to grow the game. If that’s the route, I wouldn’t have an issue with it.’
One danger of the cut to English rugby’s salary cap is an exodus of players to foreign shores. George Kruis is heading east to Japan, while Chris Robshaw is heading the opposite direction to the USA. Youngs is at a similar stage in his career, however his plans are still very much rooted at home.
‘Opportunities abroad are always going to lure some people away but it’s not something that I’m considering right now, no,’ he said. ‘It’s always going to tempt guys. If you’re not playing international rugby, or can’t see yourself breaking through, then potentially you’d do that. But I can only speak on my behalf and right now I’m very happy with where I’m at.’
And Youngs has the incentive of becoming the second ever Englishman to win 100 caps. England’s postponed Six Nations trip to Italy left him stuck on 99, but the 30-year-old has ambitions to emulate Jason Leonard. The economic forecasts may be gloomy but they have not fogged over Youngs’ ambition.
‘Our last game against Wales seems like a very long time ago,’ said Youngs, who was speaking with Dove Men+Care and England Rugby to celebrate Father’s Day.
‘It’s like I’ve had an enforced sabbatical which, as an English player, you just don’t ever get. That’s what it feels like. It’s been great for me. I’ve spent plenty of time with my family. Eddie [Jones] has been in contact asking how the home schooling is going! It’s allowed me to regroup and understand what I want to do moving forwards.
‘Off the back of it, I feel so good about getting back out there and playing again. It’s not something I knew I needed at the time, but it’s been good for me.’
‘I still have absolute hunger to play for England. At 30, I still feel like I’ve got a lot to give.’
l Dove Men+Care are a proud supporter to England Rugby. Follow the #DadsCare stories @dovemenuk on twitter or @dovemen on Instagram.
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