The English rugby union is facing a harsh reality as the RFU works to negotiate a new agreement.
Memories of the Rugby World Cup are beginning to fade. Disappointments regarding missed opportunities, lost matches, and even futile grievances about referees are starting to diminish in importance. These thoughts may be set aside for the next four years, as the champions’ trophy tour comes to an end in South Africa.
Fans and players in England should be focusing on their bread and butter: the weekly churn of domestic top-flight fixtures, a full diary of dates up and down the country, with the Six Nations punctuating the progress of a packed domestic schedule.
However, this is not the situation for Worcester Warriors, Wasps, or London Irish. A seven-week trip to France served as a pleasant diversion for numerous supporters, as scrum-half Danny Care expressed his sincere desire for English triumph to positively impact the grassroots level. Nevertheless, the local sport must now confront a fresh reality after Worcester’s downfall over a year ago, which triggered a chain of disastrous events.
The Warriors, Wasps, and London Irish all went under before Jersey Reds, the reigning Championship champions. Despite the media’s focus shifting, the downfall of these teams continues to be a continuous tragedy.
Bob Low, a longtime supporter and board member of Worcester Warriors Supporters Association, expresses that the absence of elite rugby at Sixways has created a void in the city. He states that this is evident in the atmosphere at local pubs and in his own weekend activities.
Duncan Kendall, the vice chair of the London Irish Supporters Club, has a similar experience. He still has player awards to distribute for the previous season for a professional team that is no longer in existence. Kendall plans on attending a few Premiership games to personally present the players with lasting mementos. Sadly, the previous season’s player of the season, Tom Pearson, now plays for Northampton, and the young player of the season, Chandler Cunningham-South, is now with Harlequins. Kendall reflects on the situation with a sense of sadness.
While it may seem disheartening, this is not an effort to criticize the game. If England had succeeded against South Africa in the semi-final and defeated New Zealand the next week, it is likely that the hype would have only temporarily covered up deeper issues within the team.
It is often simpler to concentrate on issues rather than discover resolutions. The Wasps and Warriors are both exploring ways to make a comeback. Kendall mentions that there are discussions about creating a “phoenix” club for the Exiles, whose amateur team is commemorating its 125th year. However, this would involve a completely different group of individuals and players.
However, at its core, numerous clubs are facing difficulties in making the numbers work. Factors such as high salaries, dependence on wealthy supporters, and declining attendance have all contributed to this issue. The decision to temporarily suspend relegation from the highest division may provide some temporary relief for clubs, but it also has negative consequences. The lack of risk in matches can greatly harm the overall quality of the product. Additionally, with fewer games being played, TV networks such as TNT Sport may also request a reduced payment (TNT Sport declined to provide a statement).
“I believe that addressing the surface level of this issue will not be sufficient, as it holds great importance,” stated Simon Cohen, the former CEO of Leicester, in an interview with the Guardian in June. “Without significant changes to the governing structure, progress will be limited. I’ve heard discussions about increasing revenue, but I think that’s a distraction. The key is implementing a sustainable model.”
The Rugby Football Union is currently in talks to form a new partnership for professional games, with the goal of revamping what CEO Bill Sweeney refers to as a “dysfunctional” system. It is expected that details of the agreement will be announced to the public next month.
Strengthened collaboration in marketing between the RFU and Premiership Rugby will be included, along with the proposal for “hybrid” contracts for England players. Although marketing is an important component of any future plan, social media exposure alone is not enough to sustain the organization, and making changes to player contracts may not address the underlying issue.
When questioned about potentially lowering player salaries in the future, Rob Baxter, the director of rugby at Exeter, stated on Sunday that it will vary for each club. He explained that clubs with a focus on generating profit and paying off debts will have to manage player wages differently compared to those with investors who are willing to continuously invest money. Baxter also stated that he is not in a position to determine which model is correct and which is incorrect.
Although having wealthy supporters is not necessarily a negative aspect, it is not a reliable way to run a business. This can be seen in the professional cycling industry. Baxter expressed the need to focus on promoting the positive aspects of the sport instead of constantly dwelling on the negative aspects. He hopes that the upcoming deal will bring about a consensus among all involved parties to discuss and appreciate all the important aspects of rugby in a positive manner.
In 2020, when the Covid pandemic struck, Mick Crossan of London Irish revealed that he could not continue to financially support the club’s annual loss of £4 million. Kendall acknowledges, “We knew that Mick was investing a lot of money, but we never thought it would come to an end. We assumed it would eventually balance out.”
It is widely agreed upon that a significant alteration is necessary. Sweeney has expressed that the upcoming agreement is an opportunity to put aside personal agendas. It is expected that this principle will be upheld by the RFU and Sweeney himself, just as it is expected of any other player in the sport.
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