English rugby union seeks to avert crisis on and off the pitch

English rugby union is drawing up reorganisation plans that aim to end conflicts between different tiers of the game and stave off a crisis that is developing both on and off the pitch.

Rugby Football Union, which runs the national side, and league organiser Premiership Rugby are in talks to strengthen ties, ensure star players are available to both England and clubs as required, and devise more joined up marketing and media rights plans.

The initiatives come at a time of financial turmoil for rugby, which has pushed both the one-time European champions, Wasps, and the 152 year-old Worcester Warriors out of the Premiership. Gloom has spread to the national side, epitomised by England’s record home defeat against France in the Six Nations tournament this year.

In an interview with the Financial Times, RFU chief Bill Sweeney said the sport was asking itself how to “stop the bleeding” after four “really disruptive” years.

He cited the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced the sport to seek a financial rescue package from the government.

“The next phase is the turnround,” Sweeney said. “We’re on the verge of something quite transformational.”

While the details are being thrashed out, the aim is to improve England’s record on the pitch, equip clubs to retain talent and better compete against overseas rivals, and boost grassroots investment. Executives want to have a blueprint for the future of the game later this year.

The challenges facing the sport are considerable. Another club, London Irish, which warned in its 2021 accounts that there was a “material uncertainty” about its ability to continue as a going concern, is sounding out prospective investors.

There are some signs that the clubs’ financial problems are having an impact on the pitch. Some England players, including ex-Wasps flanker Jack Willis, have left to play in France.

Both Sweeney and his counterpart at the Premiership, Simon Massie-Taylor, are trying to address a divide in the sport, which is plagued by competing interests of the national team and the club game.

“We’re just going to just try and remove as much conflict out of this partnership as possible,” Massie-Taylor said.

Fixture clashes mean Premiership clubs are often deprived of their best players when those players are selected for England.

To reduce calendar overlaps, the Premiership is examining plans to cut the size of its league further to 10 teams. It has already cut the numbers from 13 last year to 11, following the troubles at Wasps and Worcester.

Fewer fixtures in a smaller league could also improve player welfare: medical evidence has shown that international rugby players have a higher risk of neurodegenerative disease than the general population.

Rugby’s revenues are healthier at national level, which typically takes precedence over the club game in the minds of fans and commercial partners. The RFU generated a total £453mn in revenues in its last three financial years, dwarfing that of Irish Rugby, for instance, which produced €280mn in the same period.

Having a considerably larger budget than some of its biggest rivals has not translated into success on the field for England, however.

The RFU sacked the national coach Eddie Jones last year and replaced him with Steve Borthwick, formerly of the Leicester Tigers, but the team’s performance remained sluggish this year in the Six Nations, in which it finished fourth. In the world rankings England ranks sixth, behind Scotland.

England head coach Steve Borthwick has not yet improved the team’s performance © Lorraine O’sullivan/Reuters

“The money is there but it’s not being used in the right way,” said one club owner who declined to be named. “The big problem is we’re fundamentally competing against [the RFU] for players, media and sponsors, rather than going out and selling it all together.”

The RFU also pointed out structural differences between England and systems such as Ireland. It added that it was overly simplistic to say that “more player resources and money should result in better performance” and that more emphasis should be given to “how those resources are managed”.

Sweeney, however, acknowledged RFU’s system for identifying and developing top talent was “not as effective” as those in some other nations.

The chief executive also said cuts to funding for youth rugby several years ago had damaged the pipeline of talent. “We’ve now built back those pathways,” he said.

Despite its difficulties, rugby union has continued to attract private capital. CVC Capital Partners, the Luxembourg-based private equity group, took a 14 per cent stake in the Six Nations two years ago for £365mn.

The deal generated £90mn for the RFU, which it is deploying in areas such as the women’s game and digital media as well as an upgrade of the Twickenham national stadium.

The revenue gap between the national and club tiers is wide, however. The RFU’s revenue haul of £189mn last year was nearly treble Premiership Rugby’s £65mn.

In football, by contrast, the English Premier League’s £3bn revenue in the year to the end of July 2022 was nearly six times that of the Football Association, the national governing body.

“What you see with English rugby is almost the reverse of English football,” said Massie-Taylor. While interest in the international game was “massive”, he said, “the challenge is how it filters down” to club level.

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