Harlequins fly-half in ‘survival mode’ as Premiership ‘squeeze’ leaves his future in doubt

Alex Spink
Will Edwards during the Harlequins V Sale Sharks Gallagher Premiership rugby match.

Will Edwards during the Harlequins V Sale Sharks Gallagher Premiership rugby match.

When Will Edwards steered Harlequins to the top of the Gallagher Premiership in January he might have hoped his future was rosy. He certainly hoped to have a future.

Marcus Smith’s unavailability meant Quins turned to the 28-year-old former England sevens star on a wet Friday night up in Newcastle. It was the sort of away day which tests the character of a club.

“A real banana skin of a game,” agreed former Quins boss John Kingston. “Will came in to start his first game for however long and played really well. In actual fact, he ran the show.”

Uncertain future

Three months on and Edwards is looking for a job. He hopes it will still be in the Premiership, but in truth can’t be sure it will even be in rugby.

As the season nears its business end rank and file squad players up and down the land are wrestling with uncertainty.

Eighteen months on from Worcester and Wasps going bust, less than a year after London Irish followed them, the ripple effect is being felt across the 10 surviving clubs in England’s top flight.

“The sheer fact the numbers have been condensed into 10 clubs rather than 13 makes it a struggle,” concedes Christian Day, general secretary of the Rugby Players Association. “It has produced this difficult scenario, particularly for your squad player of old.”

The market has been saturated by the flooding in of those made redundant during the Premiership’s darkest season, which itself was born of the financial catastrophe that was Covid.

Figures from the RPA show that the sudden demise of Worcester, Wasps and Irish left 18 players unable to find a professional contract, another seven choosing to retire and 10 returning to full-time university education.

The extent of the Premiership exodus to France: 629 England caps worth of experience

More than 150 were able to continue playing professionally, which is good news unless you are one of the squad players at the remaining top-flight clubs whose futures are now under threat.

“Unsettling would be a good word for it,” says Edwards, who knows the definition better than most having been on the England sevens Zoom call in 2020 when the Rugby Football Union, plunged into a financial black hole by the pandemic, announced they were dropping the programme with the loss of 30 jobs.

“We’re in this professional rugby environment because we’re all competitive human beings. We all want to be playing as much as we can and reaching as high a level as possible.

“We’re fairly resilient people but when you then find there’s not going to be a contract for you next year you have to switch pretty quickly into survival mode.

“We’re told when we come into rugby that we should make sure we have something outside of rugby just in case. It’s a pretty sobering thought that could be me in a month or two.”

Loose Pass: ‘Ridiculous’ Champions Cup and Club World Cup rant

Rank and file

Edwards, married with a baby daughter, is being helped by Kingston who, since leaving Quins, has made it his business to advise sportsmen and women on life needs.

“Will is a fly-half with a huge skillset who you’d think would be highly sought after because he can do a job really well in the Premiership when called upon,” says Kingston, a Partner in Taylor Woodcock Kingston (TWK Ltd).

“He’s the type of player clubs need when, say, Marcus Smith is not around. The problem is the cost clubs are having to pay to keep their star players and stop them going across specifically to France.

“The salary cap is squeezing the clubs even more and putting them under pressure to find solutions.”

For many, the answer lies in bringing young players through who are cheaper to hire, and Kingston, with the experience of a lifetime in the sport, says he can only see a future with fewer paid players.

“If the sum of money in the pot is not going to significantly change and the amount the senior top players need to stay continues to rise, that can only mean less for the rank and file,” he reasons.

“That in turn means there’s going to be less of them and squads are going to have to be topped up with huge numbers of very young players, which is what clubs are starting to do.”

Sources suggest some will have a turnover of up to 20 players this summer. Smaller squad sizes will, in turn, place a greater demand on the star names as their understudies are going to be less experienced.

Some of this, the English clubs have brought on themselves with squad sizes bloated in comparison to the French Top-14 who run 35-player senior groups.

Against this backdrop Edwards is weighing up his options.

“I’d be very stupid if I hadn’t considered life outside of rugby,” he says. “It’s a very real option as the reality is there’s not that many places floating about and they are often taken by bigger names.”

Plan for Louis Rees-Zammit’s NFL transition revealed by Kansas City Chiefs boss

Moving abroad

Edwards read Planet Rugby’s recent interview with James Grayson, the Northampton fly-half son of World’s Cup winner Paul, who left Saints to take up an opportunity in the Japanese top league.

“What James said was spot on,” he says. “As a rugby player, as a professional sportsman, you do have to be very self-aware of your situation and how it’s going.

“Moving abroad would be a difficult decision to make with a young family but if it was the right opportunity I would be foolish not to say yes to it.”

In the meantime, he will give his all each day in training to prepare the team for their continued tilt at the Premiership-Champions Cup double.

“It’s quite a tough one motivation-wise at the moment,” he admits. “You put yourself through the rigorous training and horrible fitness sessions that you do, not necessarily knowing whether it’s going to pay off in three months time.

“But turning up every day and seeing the lads is always a boost to your mood and while it’s sometimes hard to keep pushing through the darker moments, I have my own standards to keep and a team I want to make sure wins at the weekend.”

READ MORE: Leinster star departs for Premiership club ahead of RG Snyman’s arrival