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Former Saracens CEO Ed Griffiths pledges to save the Championship

Ex-Saracens chief executive Ed Griffiths

EDWARD Griffiths, the former chief executive of Saracens, is confident he can chart a way forward for Championship clubs worried about their future.

Griffiths says he will complete a report within a month which will be aimed at making the Championship a vibrant, commercially viable league with a sustainable business model.

His hope is that this will alleviate the swingeing RFU cuts announced last month which reduced the funding of Championship clubs from £530,000 a year to £288,000.

Griffiths, also a former chief executive of the South African Rugby Union, says this will involve them taking control of the second tier league’s broadcasting and sponsorship rights, which are currently held by the RFU.

Griffiths, who has been signed up by the clubs, said: “The Championship is in a difficult position with funding reductions, and have asked me to come in with a fresh pair of eyes, and experience within the game, to develop a plan for the league going forward.”

He stressed the key role the Championship plays in the English game, and why it must be safeguarded.

“The Championship has to be the bridge between the amateur and pro game, where young players, coaches, referees, administrators, and strength and conditioning specialists get the chance to develop.

“It contains clubs with historic names and good core support, and you can wrap it up into a product which is attractive to broadcasters and sponsors.

“Everyone agrees it has an important role in English rugby, and the challenge is to produce a model which fits a group of clubs with different ambitions and financial circumstances that they can all sign up to.”

London Irish win Championship
Up and down: London Irish returned to the Premiership at the first time of asking in 2018-19. Getty Images

Girffiths argues that the Championship have to find their own solutions – some of them radical – rather than transplant a model from countries with a different rugby structure where the second tier is thriving, such as France.

“The French Pro D2 is a little different, mainly because they get 30 per cent of the TV rights negotiated by LNR for the top two divisions. So, it is dangerous to assume we can just transfer that model.”

He adds: “However, there are things to be learned from every rugby-playing country, and indeed other sports. We must not be afraid to be radical, or think the unthinkable, but at the same time we must come up with something that sits comfortably with the other bodies in English rugby, stands on its own feet, and is attractive to broadcasters.”

Griffiths will be unpaid for the work he does for the Championship because he says he wants to put something back into the game.

“I’ve agreed to do it pro-bono, because an awful lot of people in the pro game are not giving a lot, but are taking a lot out of it. The idea of the Under-12 coach who goes home and washes the team kit seems to be getting lost, and as someone in the pro game who has done big financial deals, I am still reminded regularly that the truth is that Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and company were all Under-12s once.”

Griffiths says that it is important rugby retains its culture as a participation sport in which the professional and amateur games remain linked together, and that the Championship have a crucial role in this.

“The big American pro sports are a show in which the top end gets very wealthy and the rest do not, but Rugby Union has always been a grass-roots up game, and has been about community and values, and not just about short-term financial gain.”

Griffiths continues: “It’s an irony that while the top end in rugby is wealthier than it’s ever been, the lower end of the game is in dire straits.”

However, he calls for co-operation rather than conflict: “The Championship needs to find its level, so it has a clearly defined role, with good constructive relationships with the RFU and PRL, and, ultimately, it needs to stand on its own two feet, and be creative as well as smart.”

Griffiths says: “There is no question of a revolt or breakaway from the RFU…one of the things historically in rugby is that there’s been far too much in-fighting, and it is not a large enough sport to afford that. Yet, it has been the story of the pro game for 25 years.”

This may explain why Griffiths, whose relegated old club Saracens will be rivals of the Championship clubs, is equivocal about promotion-relegation.

He says: “The question is whether the economic difference between the Premiership and Championship has grown too great for some clubs. The Premiership is aspiring to be a top professional league, which is right, and there is the issue of ring-fencing.

“I have always felt the ring-fencing would have to be there sooner or later, but that it should not shut off the opportunity for an Exeter, or clubs like them, to realise their ambition. However, the economic gap means that the conditions today make that kind of rise more and more difficult.”

He acknowledges that many Championship clubs might not agree, and says: “It is not a question of me going up the mountain and coming back with tablets of wisdom. As someone who has been the chief executive of a national union, and of Saracens, as well as worked as a broadcaster, you have seen a lot, and to come in completely as an independent is a very interesting challenge.

“I have met a lot of the Championship club owners over the years, so I have some prior knowledge, and I have told them I will complete it and put recommendations to them in a month.”

Asked whether he would consider taking on the job of implementing those recommendations, Griffiths replied: “It is hypothetical, and it is definitely not a job application. But if I can help in some way that would be great.”

NICK CAIN

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