RFU’s crass move a kick in the teeth for those outside rugby’s elite
The decision to slash the funding to Championship clubs has been poorly thought out, poorly delivered and poorly received in a week the game may never forgetby Robert Kitson
Was this the week English rugby changed for ever? It felt like it, and not in the positive way the Rugby Football Union intended. So loud and impassioned has been the criticism of the decision to slash central funding to the Championship by almost half, in effect cutting adrift the second tier of the English club game, it has called into question the RFU’s raison d’être.
No wonder those clubs affected feel let down, not for the first time. If professionalism to all intents killed off several famous old names, this could well have the same result. It also raises some uncomfortable home truths. Can it still be called a functioning pyramid if the apex has been jackhammered away from its base? If the RFU believes its own competition – which it is supposed to be protecting and nurturing – is irredeemably flawed, what does that say about itself as a go-ahead organisation?
There is also much suspicion about Twickenham’s real motives. Saving £3m next season might sound like good business on paper but the only one who really benefits from bringing the Championship to its knees is Premiership Rugby. If all this was purely an RFU restructuring exercise, the reduction from the current £530,000 to £288,000 per club from July would surely have been announced as part of a whole integrated package of funding measures. The Championship clubs also insist it was based on a failure to meet “a set of objectives and deliverables” of which they had not previously been aware. It has all the hallmarks of a calculated stitch-up, with the other side of the bargain to be fulfilled later.
Almost certainly ring-fencing the Premiership will now follow. After that, who knows? The top 13 clubs are also now insulated by a multi-million pound injection from the private equity pockets of CVC, whose influence appears to be growing. But what price a national union which takes a chopper to its own roots and cannot see the value in development pathways beyond the walls of its academies, its posher schools and a few specialist sixth form colleges? Or a governing body blind to the wide-ranging implications of removing the safety net of a well-resourced second tier? The former England international Mouritz Botha, now coaching at Ampthill, has been among those asking whether, for example, the RFU has remotely factored in the mental health strain on those now facing enforced unemployment at the end of the season.
Botha has also been stressing that many like him owe much to their formative time in the Championship. The RFU, for its part, has been busily claiming that the only recent England international “discovered” in the Championship was Harry Williams, whereas all the rest of the second-tier graduates who have made the highest level were short-term loanees. “We do not believe [the Championship] is the primary place where Premiership and England players are discovered and developed,” said Bill Sweeney, the RFU’s chief executive.
He might have been better advised to omit this dismissive, provocative sentence. The Championship might well have produced more talent had the RFU shown it more love. And what about the benefit to all concerned of young wannabes playing competitive league matches, rather than sitting on the bench or playing lop-sided A League matches in poor conditions on Monday nights? As the Doncaster hooker George Edgson wrote in the Telegraph: “I learned more playing in eight matches on loan at Rotherham than I did playing three years in the A League.”
It is not only players. Where are the next layer of young coaches now going to cut their teeth? If they are purely bred from within the academy structure and know no other coaching environment, what do they know of harsher rugby life? What about the school teacher who never played professionally and therefore sits outside the “system” but has a gift for coaching? Where do young English referees now learn how to officiate in the real world?
What a kick in the teeth, too, for those in Cornwall who have fought so hard for permission to build a stadium that the RFU does not seem particularly keen for them to fill. Is such aspiration really something to be squashed? Would it not be more sensible to make a virtue of the Championship as a development vehicle, rather than dismissing it as a drain on their resources? It may well be that modern-day economics leave little alternative to a closed Premiership in the near future but is the RFU really wise to be urinating on everyone else’s chips?
Discouraging any payments to players at levels below the Championship is also, apparently, part of the rationale. Again, in isolation, it is an idea with some merit which sadly fails to take into account the knock-on effect in standards, commitment, playing numbers, morale and spectator interest that would almost certainly follow. Does rugby union really want to become a sport, such as the NFL, in which adults participate only at elite or college level?
Heaven knows, football is not the ideal business model for rugby to be trying to follow but this is the equivalent of telling Blackburn Rovers, Brentford, Nottingham Forest and Bristol City they should no longer aim to be promoted to the Premier League. The message has been crassly delivered and, in terms of relationship building, is damaging to English rugby in the short, medium and longer terms. Apart from that, it has been a PR triumph.