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Friday Dec 22, 2023

Statement: Championship clubs fire back at RFU after 'flawed proposals' create rift

The financial stability of the English league structure has suffered a significant blow in recent years. Within a single season, three Premiership teams and a Championship-winning club all faced financial collapse, and there is a looming threat that others may share a similar fate if corrective measures are not implemented.

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In an effort to reshape the destiny of top-tier clubs, the RFU has recently unveiled a new strategy: a two-tier franchise plan encompassing the existing Premiership and Championship. This strategic move contradicts a recent decision by the Championship, which voted against the proposed alterations. Under the proposed changes, entry into the newly envisioned ‘Premiership 2’ will necessitate substantial bids, potentially reaching up to £20 million.

The success of these forward-looking plans teeters on a delicate balance, as Championship sides remain unconvinced of the RFU’s initiatives. The fate of the proposed restructuring hinges on the participation of an adequate number of teams. Should insufficient sides commit to the plan, the entire proposal risks abandonment, with a cautionary note to Championship teams that the earmarked additional funding may find application elsewhere.

RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney recently took a rather blunt stance on the existing state of Championship rugby, saying: “We’ve shown that if you pour money into the existing structure of the Championship, it just doesn’t deliver. That’s not being disrespectful, it just doesn’t.”

Well, now the Championship clubs have issued their much awaited response, saying:

“For now, we would like to repeat what we said on November 17, that the Championship clubs are not interested in a league that follows a franchise or selection-based model.

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“The RFU did not inform Championship clubs in advance of publication of the comments that the CEO and others chose to give to the press last week about our collective discussions over the future of the second tier. The game will also have seen the Funding and Growth strategy document which was sent to our clubs and the Council a few days ago containing certain conditional proposals.

“We wish to respond on a number of matters;

“First, we share the RFU’s desire to build a competitive and valuable second tier with all the ambition you need in a sporting competition. That is not possible for as long as Premiership Rugby Ltd and the RFU choose to maintain the current barriers to entry, which by necessity leaves the Championship as the top of the competitive pyramid in English rugby.

“Second, the significant underinvestment in our league over recent times – central funding cut by 75% with no prospect of meaningful improvement – has left us self-reliant, self-funded and self-sustaining. This is the overall backdrop.

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“The RFU has now chosen to criticise our attitude to their flawed proposals, which we do not believe represent a whole-game solution. Not only do we need a whole-game solution, but we need a whole-game response to the proposals laid out by the RFU, so in the New Year we will be making public our views on the details – as far as we can ascertain them – of the Premiership II plan.

“That means a league in which clubs are chosen to be part of a new tier two because of a commercial, geographic or financial consideration, rather than gaining membership by virtue of promotion and relegation. Meritocracy is a longstanding principle of rugby in this country, even if franchises might work elsewhere and in other sports.

“Basing entry to Tier 2 on minimum operating standards or on the perceived importance of their “brand”, rather than merit, would deprioritise the quality of rugby, of coaching and player development in Tier 2 at a time when Tier 1 is already cutting squads back.

“However, we fully support the research going on to identify ambition in other parts of the country to assist in growing the game.

“We share the RFU’s view that a second tier must be viable and of the highest possible standard. This requires continual improvements over time on and off the field, but the critical point, which the RFU knows, is that these improvements have to be developed and paid for. Unfortunately, while so little funding is allocated towards the second tier in general, our attitude has to be progressive and clubs need time to build a business plan.

“We have constantly urged earlier disclosure of funding plans to allow time for our clubs to plan with confidence.

“We commit totally to an effective player development pathway when PRL and RFU have decided, with us, what they really mean by that. Discussions are ongoing. Gametime and vital life experience is achieved for our young players by meaningful contracts and time spent with our clubs. Our value over the last years is undeniable, with more than 100 International recognitions for players who have been part of the Championship.

“Unlike the RFU, we believe that the Championship under our amended proposals is a wholly investible proposition. Indeed, collectively the current clubs’ benefactors have invested some £200 million since this league first came into being. We accept that it would be even more investible if the RFU had not cut funding levels so deeply during the most difficult period for competitive sports clubs in the modern era. They have failed by their own admission to commercialise our business. Now that, at our request, we have been given those rights to exploit, we can try to build separate revenue streams.

“Governance of Tier Two is a key consideration here at a time when the whole Union is to be reviewed and upgraded following independent analysis. A joint venture with the RFU is the most appropriate at this time while understandably PRL ensures its own fitness for purpose. This does not mean we cannot formally connect to the very top of the game over time in this area.

“A key point is that our clubs have very strong rugby DNA. We believe in that heritage as a force for the future and so do dozens of other clubs in leagues below the Championship who aspire to the top. We are committed to working with the RFU to find ways of preserving that DNA – all that is best about the sport we love – while continuing the vitally important work of creating a strong and sustainable second tier for the good of the whole game.

“Our objectives are common and we agree on so much, but our approach is different and based on decades of rugby and business experience. That demands respect and attention and the RFU Board should engage its full effort in listening to us. The Union was set up to be a guardian of the whole game in this country across all ages and talents. It must now fulfil those responsibilities.

“We will have more to say on this early in the New Year.”

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