RFU chief BILL SWEENEY outlines a blueprint for the future of club rugby

Wasps are destined to go into administration today as English rugby continues to be engulfed by a financial crisis which has been on the cards for several years – long before Covid deepened the clubs’ plight. 

The powers-that-be have been jolted into the realisation that urgent action is needed to revive the sport. This is a full-blown emergency and it is set to trigger a profound overhaul of the whole structure and governance of the game in this country. 

Bill Sweeney, the chief executive of the RFU, has addressed the myriad issues which are on the agenda and here, Sportsmail’s Chris Foy outlines his vision for revival, with a verdict on each element of the blueprint…

RFC chief executive Bill Sweeney has addressed several issues ongoing in the sport 

Wasps are set to enter administration as the financial crisis in rugby continues to worsen

Central contracts

Bill Sweeney: ‘Everything is on the table to be discussed. There are certain phrases which are like nuclear buttons and the phrase “central contracts” tends to have that nuclear effect.

‘Is there a different way we can work with PRL and the clubs in order to mitigate the expense they are facing, so we achieve greater financial stability for the clubs and also better quality of players coming into the national team – or better preparedness for the national team?

‘I would say that all of these possibilities are on the table because of what’s happened. It is an opportunity to look at everything that has been knocking around for some time. This is the time to address that.’

Chris Foy verdict: About time. Central contracts are the answer. The RFU can afford them and the clubs cannot ignore the fact that they need the financial assistance. There will need to be compromises over control of players, but that is already a factor.

Sweeney has said ‘it is time to address’ the issue of central contracts to give clubs assistance

Premiership reduction to 10 clubs

BS: ‘I do see that as viable for a number of reasons and we’ve been saying for quite some time now that less is more. A tighter league makes more sense. I don’t know if 10 is the absolute number but clearly there’s a financial benefit of having fewer teams in the league.

‘One of the things that has held us back in England is the overlap between the international game and club game. Reducing that overlap between club and country is a fundamental part of improving the product of the club game, which hopefully will stimulate growth. So a reduction in size of PRL will help us with that.’

CF verdict: No arguments here. There is no doubt that less is more. Rugby needs to stop just trying to churn out fixtures and concentrate on quality; full-strength sides competing in meaningful games. But any reduction must only go hand-in-hand with a strengthening of the second tier.

Leicester Tigers are the current champions of what could soon be a reduced Premiership

Saracens lead the way in the current table with five wins from five so far this season

Enhanced Championship

BS: ‘We do want to radically reshape English rugby’s second tier. I would like to end the myth that has developed that we are somehow anti-Championship. The issue is that endless funding into the same model that existed previously is not the answer.

‘The challenge is the ability to sell broadcast deals or generate commercial sponsorships for the Championship. There just hasn’t been any interest. That tells you the format isn’t functioning.

‘It is our intention here to find a better way to link the Premiership and the Championship and to have better movement between the two. A cup competition could be where we start rolling the dice on innovation, to refresh the game.’

CF verdict: It is inconceivable that England cannot sustain two viable and vibrant divisions. There must be adequate funding for the Championship and a launch-pad for ambitious clubs to emerge.

Trying to copy the French

BS: ‘They have a broadcast deal which is three times that of the Premiership deal. The government mandated that a third of that money has to go to the second tier. Average attendances are 1,200 in the Championship – in Pro D2 the average is 5,500. In many areas those games are played, rugby is the No 1 sport.

The broadcast deal for rugby in France is worth three times the current Premiership deal

‘Local municipalities provide stadiums free of charge and there are tax benefits in players’ salaries, so there are conditions there which are uniquely different. I’d love to have some of those, frankly. But there are some things we can take from the French model. Look at the independent audit body they have there. You’d have our support for that body (here).’

CF verdict: Rugby in France is booming. The contrast is brutal. The gap will grow bigger after next year’s World Cup across the Channel. English officials cannot replicate Gallic oval-ball obsession and the input of local and regional councils, but it can hurriedly emulate financial oversight there.

‘Fit and proper’ owners

BS: ‘We do have a fit and proper test. Is it fit and proper enough? There’s probably a question with Worcester and how did they pass that test? We’re looking at everything involved in that test – are you someone who can prove that you’ve got reputability? Can you also prove that you can provide financial sustainability for the club?

‘I wouldn’t use the term “regret” (relating to Worcester). I don’t think it is accurate to say we stood to one side and just let it all happen. We were doing everything within the structures of what’s available to us, to manage the situation.’

Related Post

Worcester owners Colin Goldring and Jason Whittingham have been widely criticised

The club were banned from competitive competition after amassing £25million worth of debt 

CF verdict: Make no mistake, Worcester were badly let down. So many red flags relating to their owners’ activities were ignored. The fit-and-proper test needs to be reinforced and the union must have the power to intervene at any stage, if there are suspicions of mismanagement.

Are player wages too high?

BS: ‘I wouldn’t single out player wages and that’s a very difficult and sensitive conversation. They put in an incredible service to the game, so talking about that is difficult. But I do think there has to be a conversation around what is an appropriate level of overall cost.

‘You look around the world at various sporting body models and you have collective bargaining agreements whereby the costs are set based on what is being generated in revenue. We are a game that has been spending more than we’ve been earning, therefore we have to find a way to address that balance.’

CF verdict: Sweeney is right to suggest player wages are a sensitive subject. They put themselves in harm’s way, at a time when the spectre of concussion stalks the sport. But there is no escaping the fact that salaries have risen beyond what clubs can afford. Something has to give.

Sweeney admitted the topic of player wages is sensitive but said a conversation is needed

Keep the salary cap or allow wealthier clubs to spend more?

BS: ‘It’s a really interesting question. What degree of flexibility do you want to have in there? The problem if you let the salary cap double for the wealthier clubs is that you undermine one of PRL’s core principles which is to have an extremely competitive league. That’s entertainment and part of driving commercial revenue. It’s a tricky one to get right.

‘The other thing I would say is that it is not a minimum-spend cap. You don’t have to spend to the cap. If you can build a squad, cut your cloth and you’re confident you can be competitive, there’s nothing to stop you doing that.’

CF verdict: It is a shame to suppress any desire to invest in the game, but the cap is a sensible tool to protect the viability of the league. On one hand, it would be fascinating to see the wealthy likes of Bristol assemble a fearsome squad to conquer Europe, but for now, sustainability is paramount.

Player exodus to force change of RFU/England selection policy?

BS: ‘There are some reasonable actions being taken by players who are looking at their futures and the fact that they are not being paid a salary, so where do they go? There are very good players in that category so to look to go overseas would be a natural outcome. We have an agreement that all those players will be available for England selection for 2023.

Several Wasps and Worcester rugby stars are set to be among those that move abroad

Several players are said to have made their intentions to move clear after the 2023 World Cup 

‘Post-2023 World Cup, everything is on the table to look at. I’ve heard of a number of players saying they would look at going abroad after the World Cup so we’ll have to address that.’

CF verdict: An exodus to France appears increasing inevitable. Any Worcester or Wasps players who go have every reason to do so, but others will want to follow. It is high time to scrap the policy against picking players for England who are based abroad.

Role of CVC

BS: ‘We talk to them on a regular basis. I think one of the reasons why they invested in rugby was that it was a dysfunctional sport previously and this was an opportunity to resolve some of the issues and realise the potential the sport has. They will play their part in making this change come about.

‘The reason private equity gets into anything is to make money and we felt that the way for them to make money was to fix structural dysfunctionality in the game. I don’t think they will achieve their financial projections unless we are able to make the changes we need to make and we will both benefit from that.’

CF verdict: Who knows what CVC objectives are? They are spectacularly secretive, so we can only assume that profit is the sole goal. If so, it’s not going well so far – and maybe they should be taking more of a visible lead in driving the change needed to help the game thrive.

Does rugby need an innovation like the Hundred in cricket, to drive revenue growth?

BS: ‘We have spoken about the direction of cricket. There are differences between cricket and us, in terms of player welfare issues. One of the constraints we have is we have to work within a finite resource of matches and weekends available.

There have been discussions about cricket’s directon, but more tournaments seem unlikely

The Six Nations, held by France, is one of three main ‘cash cows’ explained by Sweeney

‘At the moment, our cash cow would be the East Stand (at Twickenham), the Six Nations and the autumn internationals. But talking about other formats, the integration of tier one and tier two would give us the opportunity to do that and that is something we are discussing.’

CF verdict: No chance. This is a high-impact sport which is far more physically demanding for its participants than cricket, so it is all but impossible to cram in new tournaments. Maybe the mooted club World Cup will happen, but gimmicky sideshows won’t.

(PS. Clubs need to be innovative to cope with the impact of losing two teams from the Premiership, and Northampton have reacted swiftly by arranging a home fixture against the Barbarians on November 26 – when they were supposed to host Worcester. On the one hand, it will help the Saints off-set a potential £400,000 short-fall in income, but it also presents an opportunity for the sport to showcase its supportive nature. Here’s hoping the Barbarians hire Steve Diamond as head coach and he fills his invitational squad with Worcester and Wasps players still seeking employment. Then if the format works, it could be repeated elsewhere, to fill sudden voids in the calendar.)


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