x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

An uneven playing field

With a salary cap in place, English rugby clubs struggle to keep up with other countries, such as France.

A team wearing an Etihad sponsors logo on their shirt fronts will represent England in the final of a European competition this evening.

However, unlike Manchester City, their well-heeled peers from the round-ball code, Harlequins are anything but the envy of European rugby's finance managers.

Just like any other English Premiership rugby club, the London side must adhere to a salary cap of £4 million (Dh23.8m) per year.

As such, they will be conceding a vast amount of spending power to their opponents, Stade Francais, in tonight's Amlin Challenge Cup final in Cardiff. The French club's prospective budget for this season was almost £17m.

Looking at the balance sheet, it should not be a contest, and many English clubs have grumbled that they are unable to compete in Europe because of the wage cap.

"We have to start comparing apples with apples," Richard Cockerill, the Leicester coach, said in January, voicing a common frustration at spending curbs.

However, the meeting in Cardiff between sides who are modestly ranked in their leagues should be seen as a tribute to the merits of financial fair play.

Despite the pay-scale disparity, Harlequins have nothing to fear. They are a side founded on home-reared academy graduates such as Chris Robshaw and Jordan Turner-Hall, who rank among the finest emerging English talents.

Judging by their rousing display against Munster at Thomond Park in the semis, they are unlikely to be overawed by the occasion.

Stade, meanwhile, are in crisis. They spent heavily while becoming one of leading sides in France during the past decade (they won the Top 14 four times), and they are now financially stricken.

The Parisian club were reportedly under investigation after falling short of their budget projected at the start of the season.

If they failed to find those funds, they could be relegated from the French top division under the rules which govern the league.

A Canadian consortium brought together by the former Stade and France coach Bernard Laporte is said to have a rescue package.

It would be folly for English clubs to try to compete financially with their French rivals. Stade themselves are far short of paying the wages enjoyed by players at France's most successful club, Toulouse.

Even with the salary cap in place, only two clubs - Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints - are reported to be operating debt-free in the Premiership.

A Harlequins success in Cardiff should go some way to proving that lavish spending is not the only route to success.

pradley@thenational.ae