Rugby to learn from football governance review after clubs’ collapse – RFU chief

Bill Sweeney and Premiership Rugby’s Simon Massie-Taylor were heavily criticised by a parliamentary committee

George Sessions
Thursday 24 November 2022 21:31 GMT
RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney faced questions from a parliamentary committee about Wasps and Worcester’s plight on Thursday (Nick Ansell/PA)
RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney faced questions from a parliamentary committee about Wasps and Worcester’s plight on Thursday (Nick Ansell/PA)

Rugby Football Union chief executive Bill Sweeney has revealed the fan-led review of football governance will assist their efforts to help get their own sport back on track following the recent plight of Worcester and Wasps.

Sweeney and Premiership Rugby counterpart Simon Massie-Taylor appeared in front of a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee on Thursday to face questions about how English rugby was thrown into disarray during the opening months of the current season.

Both Wasps and Worcester were hit with relegation from the Gallagher Premiership in October after they entered administration owing to unpaid taxes being pursued by HM Revenue and Customs.

DCMS chair Julian Knight was one of several MPs to scrutinise Sweeney and Massie-Taylor at Portcullis House with the duo asked if they had considered resigning in the wake of two clubs going under.

A lot of the criticism centred on their failure to intervene when Worcester’s previous owners Colin Goldring and Jason Whittingham had shown warning signs and the RFU chief conceded a review of rugby’s fit and proper owners test – like in Tracey Crouch’s fan-led review in football last year – would occur.

“They certainly wouldn’t get through a fit and proper persons test now,” said Sweeney.

“One of major learnings that will come out of this very sorry episode, and some of the learnings we’ve taken from the FA’s (sic) fan-led review, is a binary one-off owners and directors test is not sufficient to prevent future bad behaviour or bad management.

“Have ongoing regular conditional reviews in terms of their performance and suitability is necessary.”

After being told he was “asleep on the job” by DCMS chair Knight, Sweeney highlighted that the RFU and Premiership Rugby were currently formalising terms for a new Professional Game Agreement (PGA) which would help safeguard the sport from further cases like Wasps and Worcester.

He added: “There are probably three areas we need to look at and change.

“One is something we’ve been working on anyway which is the overall structure of the professional game in terms of the Premiership, but also the Championship so it links together and we have a more compelling league structure, which will help us drive additional revenue and benefits into the game.

“Secondly from what we’ve looked at in terms of the FA (sic) review and conversations we’ve had with them, and also the DCMS, there needs to be a look at governance reform in terms of how new owners coming into the game can be determined whether they are suitable to do that.

“Regular ongoing checks and conditionality would be a part of that along with appropriate structures around board and independent directors. There is a governance piece that needs to be strengthened coming out of this experience.

“Then the final one would be clearly more financial transparency and more real-time financiering modelling to enable us to engage with these clubs for a situation like this, which will hopefully never happen again, so we can actually take proactive action.”

Sweeney described the “double whammy” of the coronavirus pandemic and the current cost-of-living crisis, which has seen the utility bill at Twickenham rise from £2.2million to £7.5m, as a key reason behind recent events.

Premiership chief executive Massie-Taylor provided a unified front with his RFU counterpart and insisted the “partnership had never been stronger” between the two organisations.

“Clearly at the moment we’re riding out a storm,” said Massie-Taylor, who like Sweeney did not directly address the question about whether he had considered his position following the collapse of Worcester and Wasps.

A binary one-off owners and directors test is not sufficient to prevent future bad behaviour or bad management.

RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney

“That’s been driven partly by the Covid period and also the economy, so some clubs are naturally having challenges. That was the case for both Wasps and Worcester in the fact they were negotiating debt agreements and they got timed out by HMRC.”

Massie-Taylor shut down suggestions of a potential Anglo-British league but did again raise the possibility of reducing the Premiership to 10 teams.

He added: “One of the major themes here is we need to have much better alignment between the first and second tiers in how it is managed, marketed and how the flow of teams goes from one to the other.

“I think there is a strong argument around a tighter first division, the Premiership, and Bill has mentioned about the fact we have a large amount of calendar congestion and an overlap.

“Equally we have to consider player welfare and there is a general theme and belief that players are playing a lot of rugby. Therefore a decongested tighter calendar would assist that.

“There is also a general theme around better quality of games could equal better commercial revenue for the clubs in the long term.”

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