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RFU responds to claim it has a 'grudge' against Championship clubs

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

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RFU CEO Bill Sweeney has dismissed claims that it holds a grudge against Championship clubs in England following trenchant criticisms of funding cuts in recent years. Funding had doubled in 2016, going up to a total of around £7million that was worth about £534,000 to each club, but that figure was halved following the arrival of Sweeney as English rugby HQ boss in 2019.


It has been further reduced with clubs reportedly receiving approximately £80,000 each in 2020/21, funding propped up by a £140,000 per club contribution from the PRL. This reduced finance has left the RFU and its boss open to stinging allegations that it doesn’t care about second-tier rugby in England, but Sweeney has now insisted this isn’t the case.    

Following an in-depth review of the Championship set-up, the RFU council is set to hear initial recommendations in January and these apparently include conference structures, more regionality, more National One clubs, Premiership second teams, English player ratios, and age restrictions (80 per cent U23s).

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Sweeney has outlined that everything is up for discussion and was adamant that the Premiership hasn’t been ring-fenced by the decision last summer to place a moratorium on relegation from the top flight until the end of the 2023/24 season when the bottom-placed team will have to play off with the top side in that year’s Championship rather than get automatically demoted.

Speaking in an in-depth interview in the latest edition of the Rugby Journal magazine, Sweeney said ahead of next month’s RFU council meeting: “If you do some of these (options) how do you prepare a club that wants to go up to the Premiership? All of that is what is in the review. You have got to look at it in the context of what is best for the game. We don’t have a grudge against or have any ill-feeling towards Championship clubs. They are great clubs.

“We often get accused of ring-fencing. We are not trying to ring-fence the Premiership and the Premiership is not trying to ring-fence itself either. They want a very competitive and more nationwide league as well. Now what you want to do is encourage more Exeters and you want to discourage the London Welsh stories where a club says, ‘I’ve got to get into the Premiership and get in there at all costs’. 


“They end up paying players more than they can afford, they don’t have the spectator base and they end up plummeting all the way down through the leagues and they have to rebuild themselves back up again.”

Sweeney revealed that when he came to power at the RFU in 2019, he went to the Championship funding increase documents from 2016 and it was decided that the goals set at that time weren’t being met and cuts needed to happen.

“We doubled the funding and it went up to £7million. There were five specific reasons why this was done with five specific goals laid out for them and when you looked at them all, they hadn’t been achieved despite the increase in funding. 

“Perhaps, more importantly, there was a sense that, ‘Well actually, it’s not the funding that is going to address those issues. It’s something more systematic than that’. One of the aims was to reduce the gap between the Premiership and the Championship but over the last 17 years, 14 of those seasons have seen the team that has been relegated in the Premiership bounce immediately back up. 


“The gap in funding between a Premiership and a Championship club is so significant that the RFU can’t bridge that. We would have to spend probably a minimum of £4m per club, so we would need what, £50m? We have got 1,900 clubs in the country so we can’t afford that. It was difficult, though. People are passionate about their clubs and people don’t like resources being taken away. 

“The crowds haven’t grown, the average is around 1,200 and that is probably inflated by a couple, the salaries are low and it is a difficult sell to television. Even the Premiership had its challenges when it came to renewing with BT, so people aren’t lining up (to televise the Championship) and it’s difficult to get centralised sponsorship. If you take away external funding at the moment, it’s difficult for the Championship to sustain itself as a full-time model.”

Sweeney added that suggestions the RFU should simply copy how the French rugby federation supports its Pro D2 second-tier league don’t stack up. “A lot of people will say, ‘Just copy the French model’. But the French model is very different for a number of reasons,” he explained.

“France is a bit more of a socialist country so when they set up Pro D2, it was mandated by the government that one-third of the LNR broadcasting money had to flow down. So the new broadcast deal with LNR is about £100m a year whereas the Premiership broadcast deal is £35m, so Pro D2 is getting immediately 30 per cent of that £100m – almost the equivalent of the Premiership.

“Then you have some of these clubs in the rural parts of France and they are very much the hub of that city and the municipality gives you the stadium for free, so they don’t have to pay any of the utilities or anything. All you have to do is put the players on the pitch and pay them and a lot of it tends to be linked into jobs as well, and the average spectator base in France for Pro D2 is 5,000 people. 

“You have also got to remember rugby is pretty much the national sport in France. It’s cultural as much as anything else. If we could just replicate that system we would love to, but it is just not possible to do that.”


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