How Premiership clubs compare to South Africa’s ‘joke’ spending power

Jared Wright
Gloucester's Jonny May and the Sharks' lifting the Challenge Cup title.

A look at the salary caps of the South African teams compared to the Premiership clubs.

Following Gloucester’s humbling defeat to the Sharks in the Challenge Cup, ex-England winger Jonny May described the South African side’s spending power as “a joke”.

The Sharks’ starting XV for the showpiece event at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was a star-studded line-up, boasting four double Rugby World Cup-winning Springboks, including two 2023 world champions, and four other capped Boks in their matchday 23.

The Durbanites have endured a challenging season in the United Rugby Championship, heading into the final round ranked a lowly 13th in the tournament but enjoyed a fine run in the Challenge Cup, culminating with a 36-22 victory over Gloucester in the final.

Premiership v South African teams’ salary caps

Following the defeat, ex-England winger May claimed that the Premiership teams cannot compete with the financial power of the Irish, French and notably the South African teams.

“That’s the sort of elephant in the room,” he said on The Good, The Bad and The Rugby podcast.

“How is it that the English teams are going to compete with clubs who are spending three times the amount on their squad?

“The team that Gloucester had out at the weekend – and we tried our best – their team financially must have been three or four times more expensive than our team.”

He added: “It comes down to money. It’s a South Africa pack, it’s a joke.”

‘How can English teams compete?’ – Jonny May calls Sharks’ spending power ‘a joke’ after Challenge Cup final humbling

While the Gloucester back may have a point when it comes to the French and Irish teams, he is simply wrong about the South Africans’ spending power.

Firstly, the South African URC franchises are restricted to an annual salary cap set by SARU, which was set at R85 million (about £3.5m) for the 2023/24 season – significantly increased from R71 million (£2.9m) from the season before.

In comparison, the Premiership Rugby clubs must adhere to a salary cap of £5 million (about R119.5m).

Sorry, Jonny your math doesn’t work out there. In fact, South African teams have nearly half the salary caps that Premiership clubs do, and that’s without factoring in further credits afforded to English clubs for homegrown players, international player credits, injury dispensations and, of course the marquee player signings that are not included in the cap.

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Premiership salary cap increase

And that is just for this season, with the Premiership budget set to balloon back to £6.4 million for the 2024/25 campaign.

Sure, SA Rugby does assist the franchises with their Player of National Interest scheme which has helped the Sharks sign the likes of Eben Etzebeth and Bongi Mbonambi but it is far from the central contracting system used by the likes of Ireland and New Zealand.

Frankly, if the South African teams were the financial powerhouses that May believes they are, why do so many of their star players go abroad?

For decades, Premiership clubs have signed top South African players, from Francois Pienaar to Schalk Brits, to Schalk Burger to Faf de Klerk, to Franco Mostert and many others. Meanwhile, many of their double Rugby World Cup winners now ply their trade in Japan.

Not only are these players able to get more financially beneficial contracts abroad, but the weak Rand means they can set themselves up better for life after rugby, back in South Africa earning a stronger currency. Unlike the RFU’s policy, SA Rugby allow the Springboks to select players based abroad, but even before then several star players put their international careers on hold to earn more abroad and that would still be the case now if the policy was in place.

Even the Top 14’s salary cap at about £9.2 million (around R220.3 million) is far greater than that of the South African URC teams, yet the Sharks were able to edge Clermont in the semi-finals.

The only ‘joke’ here is the inaccuracies sprouted, while the game in England is not in the best financial situation – emphasised by the collapse of Worcester Warriors, Wasps and London Irish – Premiership clubs do have better spending power than the South Africans.

READ MORE: Ben Earl warns RFU against setting ‘dangerous precedent’ on overseas policy