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RFU CEO Bill Sweeney responds to outcry from Championship clubs

Bill Sweeney

In Sunday’s edition of The Rugby Paper, key figureheads in the Executive of the Championship Clubs Committee (CCC) penned an open letter to RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney.

In no uncertain terms, the CCC described the measure taken to by the RFU to cut funding to the Championship by almost a half as a ‘disaster’ as this season quickly ties into 2020-21 after the summer.

Here, Bill Sweeney himself issues his own response to the concerns of Championship clubs.

Bill Sweeney and Eddie Jones
England development: RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney and head coach Eddie Jones. David Rogers/Getty Images

I felt it was important for me to talk through the rationale behind our decision regarding funding the Championship. We don’t take this issue lightly and we understand the repercussions, and we understand what it means to the clubs, players and all involved in terms of the reduction.

Some context that needs to be considered is the work that we have done around Project Union. This is an exercise where we are evaluating everything we spend to make sure that we are getting the right return on investment and that we are able to focus on the key objectives we have identified to benefit the community and professional game.

We have a finite amount of resources and have to be really careful in terms of how we spend that money. Looking at the 14/15 financial year compared to now with the new level of Championship funding, spend on that competition has gone down 3% versus 15% for the rest of the professional game and 5% for the community game.

We have been in conversation with the Championship chairman since the World Cup. We discussed and we gave an indication of the direction we were likely to go in and have had ongoing conversations since.

Having now spoken to the clubs this week, clearly their reaction has been very strong and that’s not unexpected but, to be very clear, the level of reduction is 40%. That is not a small amount of money and, for the clubs, it represents something that clearly causes some angst.

I do need to go back to 2015 when the decision was taken to increase the funding by 100%. That was done basically against five principles that were put to our Board as to why we would increase it.

The first element was to establish a financially sustainable second tier of the game. The average loss per club is £260k, so that one has not been achieved for whatever reason.

The second reason was to create a league which would see a greater level of interchange between the Premiership and the Championship. More promotion, more relegation. If you look at it in the last five years, whichever team has come down has automatically bounced back up to the Premiership. There is a widening of the gap between the two leagues. However, this is not ring- fencing.  Promotion/relegation is still in place.  We don’t see that changing in the immediate future.

If somebody comes along with a significant amount of money that they wish to invest into a club to win the Championship and go up, that can still happen. Like Exeter. The challenge to do that these days is more significant. To run a fully professionalised Premiership club takes quite a bit of money. Now, if someone is prepared to spend that, that option still exists.

The third principle was to have a league which was for the development and recruitment of players into the Premiership and then  into the England team. The Championship has a critical role to play, and will still play a role, in the pathway development of players.

We have seen that with front rowers who need to go and learn their trade in a lower league before they compete at the level of the Premiership. We are not anticipating that to change or shift and the Championship will still play a part. 93% of the England U20s come from the Premiership academies.

But the days when it was the fishing ground for talent to come into England have changed. From the statistics we have looked at, there are more English academy players playing in National One than there are in the Championship, and we are seeing a growth of English academy players playing the BUCS super league system as opposed to the Championship.

The Championship does play a key role, but it is not the primary route for highly-talented players to come in, be developed and go to the Premiership and then play for England.

The fourth one was for the Championship to be the training ground for coaches and referees with longer term careers. The Championship will still exist, as does National One and the other National Leagues, and we still see an opportunity there.

The final principle was very specific community development programmes between the RFU and the Championship clubs to promote and develop the game across the community side. The Championships clubs do a great amount of activity in this space, but no different to every other club within the RFU affiliation, and therefore this increase in funding has not gone specifically into that aspect.

There has been some concern about timing. And the timing is difficult for the clubs, we accept that, we are into February and most clubs will be signing and contracting players. We did not underestimate at any stage during this process about the impact this would have on clubs, on players, or support staff involved.

We appreciate there is going to be a period of transition and we are continuing to work with the clubs and reviewing ways that we can support that transition. We have also made no firm decision to reduce further the following year and will continue to review with the clubs.

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