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'I'm hearing whispers about another Premiership club...'

By Chris Jones
(Photo by Stephen White/CameraSport via Getty Images)

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Ex-Premiership club CEO Mark Evans will spend the next three seasons trying to ensure the Fijian Drua Super Rugby franchise becomes financially viable, insisting that the current audit of the Fiji Rugby Union – who own 51 per cent of the Drua – will not impact his ambitious plans for growth.

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Instead, the former Harlequins, Western Force and Melbourne Storm chief executive (who was also director of rugby at Saracens), believes that whatever hurdles await won’t compare to the problems the Gallagher Premiership is currently facing in England with Worcester Warriors in danger of folding and Wasps unable to pay back a £35million bond debt.

Evans, who will move to Fiji in October, set out his plans as Drua CEO and his continuing fears for Premiership Rugby in a wide-ranging RugbyPass interview. He has repeatedly warned of a financial disaster for English professional rugby unless significant steps are taken to improve the running of the sport – check out his previous May 2020 interview.

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His thoughts at the time were also laid out at great length in Unholy Union, the book he collaborated on with writer Michael Aylwin, and he has now given his latest take on the brutal financial situation unfolding in England with Worcester on the brink of disaster. “The regulatory authorities [RFU and PRL] have to look at what the hell they are doing to allow Worcester to happen,” said Evans.

“It was so avoidable. All it would have needed at Worcester is for an appropriate fit and proper person test and the Premiership clubs to agree to have central oversight of their finances on the grounds of transparency and none of this would have happened. Therefore you have to say the regulatory authorities – the Rugby Football Union and PRL (who run the Premiership) – have to bear responsibility for this.

“Wasps is slightly different and I do think that underneath it all there is a decent business based at Coventry, but the rugby and the stadium complex have to be under one ownership. A club like Newcastle has done a remarkable job in a difficult market, while I’m hearing whispers about another Premiership club possibly having problems.

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“Without the winter package of support from the Government, clubs would have been in even more trouble but it is real debt and must be repaid even with low interest and long terms. Heavily indebted clubs are even more heavily indebted.

“This is fixable and it’s not difficult but we have never had the political will or common agreement to do it. It is about the Premiership and it is in their gift, not the RFU. They don’t set the salary cap or have marquee players. It is all PRL. It comes down to getting costs in line with revenue.”

The 63-year-old Evans hopes that by the time he returns to England following his three-year contract in Fiji that the Premiership landscape will be different, although he isn’t holding his breath. “I hope there would be radical change by 2025 so that we can concentrate on growing the game. When I come back I hope we will be playing fewer games and have changed the regulatory structure in terms of fit and proper persons and financial oversights.

“Clubs will also have to open their books, not only for salary cap but also financial control so they are viable and avoid this sudden explosion. When I worked in the NRL (in Australia) we had four clubs in a terrible state but we got them all back stable and they didn’t leave the competition. We had the central control to do that but here in England, we have shied away from that because we are miles away from that kind of transparency.

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“It was a ridiculous idea that the Premiership salary cap could be relaxed if Worcester or Wasps went bust. You would just load more debt onto clubs already losing £3m to £5m a year. That idea was a knee-jerk reaction but come on – you fix it by sorting out regulations and controls.

“If you run a club you have a duty of care and something like the current Worcester situation was bound to happen and it was just a case of not knowing when. Just look at the past record of some of the people involved and it doesn’t pass muster. “

While he remains passionate about the Premiership, Evans is aware of the negative publicity currently surrounding the Fijian rugby hierarchy as he heads into his new role there. The audit of the FRU finances is being conducted following the sacking of three employees while John O’Connor, the chief executive has agreed to take ‘annual leave’.

The FRU own 51 per cent of the Drua, who made their Super Rugby Pacific debut last season, and Evans is confident any fallout from the union can be sidestepped. Brian Thorburn was appointed as an interim CEO to help build Drua as a new franchise and Evans will now take over on a contract that takes him through to the end of the 2025 Super Rugby campaign.

“The FRU and the Drua have a completely separate board who I report to, and the financing is also separate,” explained Evans. “The FRU own 51 per cent but there is a significant degree of separation at an operational level. The Drua have had their first year mainly played off the islands because of covid, except for the last two matches, and it is an opportunity to them viable and successful.

“Why not give it a crack? With the right structures, Fiji has enough talent on and off the islands for a lot of growth. The Drua can make a significant difference and that is why I agreed to do it. The Drua have a good set of sponsors and I’m reasonably confident. They also have fantastic fans and I’m really looking forward to experiencing that kind of enthusiasm. However, I’m trying to manage expectation.”

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