Many clubs are bleeding cash, the players are worried, says Flo
"Rugby players are masters of disguise," says South African Francois Louw from his home in Bath. "In the heat of the moment when you’re looking at someone square in the eyes, there’s no emotion, but inside you’re screaming with pain and fatigue. It’s something you have to master and players do it off the field, too."
While rugby muddles along, trying to find a route back to the action amid the coronavirus pandemic, the sport’s stars might look like they are cracking on with their home workout regimes and barbecues, but deep down plenty are worried about the future.
"There is concern,’ says Louw, 34. ‘What happens to any industry if this continues for six months? They’re talking about opening up the schools next month but if the R-rate goes up then do we go back to full lockdown again?
"The hospitality industry is getting pushed out, those businesses could go under completely and there’s mountains of debt building up. How’s that going to be repaid? Tax is the ultimate but to what end?"
Back home he anticipates more strife. "In South Africa the stringent lockdown on businesses and forcing of more unemployment, with the majority of South Africans living hand-to-mouth, it is scary," he says. "Lots of charities are jumping up to feed the hungry and poor but no one is sure where it’s all headed.
"My family run a guest house called Les Baleines in Hermanus outside Cape Town but the tourism industry has gone from hero to zero — a complete shutdown. It’s mostly Britons who visit and that has come to a complete halt.
"Questions are being asked about next year’s Lions tour. South Africa cancelled the Tests in their winter which will have a major financial impact, as it will in the UK. Here, the amount of people who have approached the Government for the universal grant is the highest it has been. They’re talking like the post-war era in terms of the effect on the economy.’
This interests Louw because, when he retires next month, he is to become a financial advisor and is setting up a business to help sports people manage their money.
"Players will need sound advice about how to get through this," he says. "Having been a professional sportsman I can empathise. I understand what goes through their minds, especially from a young age and starting to earn good money.
"No one can make decisions until you’re told how to. Too many athletes retire in a bad financial state considering the opportunities they had in their career.
"There are talks of permanent 25 per cent salary reductions in the Premiership, some clubs are calling for 50 per cent. Stephen Lansdown at Bristol is the only one saying it should never happen. Good on him but if you understand a club’s cash-flow you see they’re bleeding on a daily basis.
"It then gets put on to the players. From a player’s perspective, you want full pay but there is context.
"Clubs are bleeding money. That’s not a secret. The majority of money comes through ticket sales, sponsors and BT TV rights. Clubs are having to pay back TV money and season-ticket holders through the Consumer Rights Protection Act. That’s money that suddenly isn’t there but wage bills and expenses still are.
Players are only a proportion of the wage bill. There’s concern but, to everyone’s credit, guys are staying fit and positive so that, when the day comes when they can return to training, they are ready."
Except, that does not apply to everyone. The admission last week from English rugby bosses that the sport is not ready even to return to training effectively retired swathes of players such as Louw on the spot.
With his club contract running out on June 30, he is resigned to the fact that he will never play again.
"It’s not just us retiring but guys moving clubs,’ says Louw, referring to players such as Kyle Sinckler swapping Harlequins for Bristol and Jonny May leaving Leicester for Gloucester.
"Are they representing a different club in the same season, or finishing with their current one? Who’s paying their salary? So many questions. For me, I think that is going to be it.
"There are talks about resuming the season come August, which would mean players coming back to training in June or July. I saw the statement that training won’t resume for at least two weeks. The crux of it will be the isolation period. If rugby does resume but you’re exposed to someone who has symptoms, or you get symptoms, what do you do? Do teams from a weekend game have to isolate for two weeks?
"It’s bizarre, you can’t kick-start rugby like that.
"I made the decision to finish and unfortunately that’s the outcome. I don’t think it has quite struck me as it will. At some stage I’ll be sitting with a glass of wine reminiscing about the good old days and wondering “Did I have one more season in me?”
"A time will come when it will really jerk on my heart. I’ve spent nine special seasons at Bath. I leave with a full heart, great memories, great friends for life. That’s what sticks with you.’
A romantic weekend in snowy Somerset in 2011 made Louw fall in love with Bath. ‘They said, “We’re very keen on you, why don’t you come over and meet us?”’ he says. "I said, “I’d love to. I have one request — my girlfriend has to make this decision with me but she’s on a secondment in New York. Can you bring her over?”. It was cheeky but they agreed. From the moment we arrived we fell in love with Bath."
And despite no official farewell, Louw has an idea. What about a Barbarians fixture for those in his shoes? ‘We could make it a charity match to raise money for what’s happening. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone is working on it.’Daily Mail