RFU chief thinks central contracts could be on table in face of financial crisis

The plight of Worcester and Wasps has seen the spotlight fall on the future of English club rugby.

Nick Purewal
Sunday 16 October 2022 18:20 BST
Bill Sweeney thinks central contracts could be among the discussions as English rugby gets to grips with reshaping its future (Steven Paston/PA)
Bill Sweeney thinks central contracts could be among the discussions as English rugby gets to grips with reshaping its future (Steven Paston/PA)

Bill Sweeney believes even the once “nuclear” option of central contracts for England players will be discussed to solve club rugby’s financial crisis.

The Rugby Football Union chief executive revealed central contracts and two-tier deals will be floated as part of wide-ranging plans to reshape the sport in England.

Sweeney pledged the RFU will keep thrashing out a way forward with Premiership Rugby (PRL), with Worcester in administration and Wasps poised to follow suit.

The RFU and PRL are already in talks on a new Professional Game Agreement (PGA), despite current terms not expiring until June 2024.

But with clubs racked with debt and benefactor owners adding the league’s main ballast, Sweeney wants radical changes to bring about self-sufficiency.

The RFU chief admitted in the darkest days of club-versus-country rows, the merest utterance of central contracts would have sparked internal war.

But the severity of rugby’s current plights means all parties are more open to major change than ever before.

When asked if central contracts could be an option to alleviate financial burden on cash-strapped clubs, Sweeney replied: “I think everything’s on the table to be discussed.

“And everyone who’s around the table wasn’t part of the old days when there was animosity between club and country. And this is a fresher set of eyes that are looking at it.

“But there are certain phrases that are like nuclear buttons, and the phrase ‘central contracts’ tends to have that nuclear effect.

“There are higher-level salaries for those playing for England, and then there’s the amount of time they spend playing for their club.

“So is there a different way that we can work with PRL and the clubs to mitigate the expense they are facing on that side of things and have a better structure in place? To achieve greater financial stability for the clubs and better preparedness for the national team.”

Asked if joint contracts shared between club and country could also work, Sweeney continued: “Possibly. And I would say that all of these possibilities are on the table, because of what’s happened.

“This has created an opportunity, albeit using a word like that doesn’t feel appropriate. But it’s a chance now to address ideas that have been knocking about for some time.”

Sweeney wants major governance reform in English club rugby, to stop another club going the way of Worcester and Wasps.

I think everything's on the table to be discussed.

RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney

The former British Olympics Association chief conceded that the current checks and balances on potential club owners may not be tight enough.

Asked about tests carried out on prospective owners, Sweeney said: “I think that would come under the heading of regulatory control and governance reform.

“We do have a current fit and proper test, but is it fit and proper enough?

“We do need to look at everything coming out of this experience.

“There’s probably a question linked into that with Worcester and how did they pass that going back in time. But we’re looking at everything involved in this.

“And that fit and proper test, are you somebody who can prove reputability as a new owner, and can you also prove you can provide financial sustainability for a club? That’s something we need to look at very, very closely.

“We’ve had a look at it and we’ll have another look at it going forward.”

Worcester rugby director Steve Diamond understandably lamented the lack of intervention from either Premiership Rugby or the RFU as the Warriors went to the wall.

But Sweeney insisted the current regulations left the two governing bodies without the requisite power to take stronger action.

“I don’t think it’s accurate to say we stood to one side and let it all happen,” said Sweeney.

“We knew Worcester were in a precarious position because the winding-up petition was issued in August and it was 5 October when they had to pay the outstanding £6.5million debt to HMRC.

“We were not in a position to put them into administration prior to the season starting, nor were PRL. And that goes to issues around governance.

“The only body that could have done would have been DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) because of Government loans as a creditor, and they were reluctant to do that as they wanted to find a credible bidder.

“The issue is what could have been done and how do we change that going forward.”

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