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The three leaders of RFU bring presents, but the overhaul of the English game will be challenging.
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The three leaders of RFU bring presents, but the overhaul of the English game will be challenging.

Soon, Christmas will be here and the Rugby Football Union’s leadership is making promises to bring good things. They plan to offer up to 25 new and improved contracts for Steve Borthwick to give to a select group of England players, giving the head coach more authority starting next season. They also want to restructure the Championship to include up to 14 teams, allowing Wasps, London Irish, and Worcester to quickly return due to their valuable brands. Additionally, they aim to create a pathway for players that will prevent young talent from stalling.

Finally, Bill Sweeney, the chief executive, along with Conor O’Shea, the performance director, and Steve Diamond, who was brought on in an advisory role, are sharing their plans for the future of English rugby. They are proposing a comprehensive solution to address the issues with the current system, which has resulted in four clubs going bankrupt in the last 15 months. Despite these challenges, England managed to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup, but not without difficulty. The team is now focused on building a strong and talented group for the future, with the goal of being a top-performing nation in all aspects of professional rugby. There is a sense of optimism surrounding these plans.

Sweeney holds the purse strings, O’Shea is the brains of the operation and Diamond the muscle, the straight shooter in the face of the union’s endless bureaucracies. As he says: “All that’s been put in front of me has been subcommittee, subcommittee, subcommittee.” But the three are aligned in their messaging that the professional game partnership (PGP) between the RFU and Premiership Rugby (PRL), still to be finalised but set to kick in next summer, can bring about transformative change.

The upgraded agreements are the most noticeable aspect of the Professional Golfers’ Program (PGP). Despite being nearly three decades behind the start of professionalization, they are a step towards central contracts, although not a complete solution. Sweeney explains that the previous eight-year deal focused on “access” for England’s players, while the PGP is more focused on “control.” While this may sound oppressive, it means that Borthwick has more say in areas such as player training and medical programs. After the recent Six Nations tournament, he expressed frustration with his players’ lack of fitness and how he had little control once they returned to their clubs. These contracts aim to address these issues.

The perspective of the players is focused on security. Despite their status in the squad, each player receives a fixed amount of £160,000, which is significantly higher than the previous pro-rata basis of approximately £23,000 per match. These new contracts provide a guaranteed income, regardless of any potential injuries. They also prevent situations where players may hide minor injuries or feel hesitant to express their opinions, out of fear of losing appearance fees. While it was disappointing that Henry Arundell declined the offer, Maro Itoje and Jamie George have been convinced to accept it and it is expected that there will be a positive response from other players as well. However, the lack of clarity and certainty for certain players and clubs due to the PGP not yet being signed is causing some issues.

The RFU’s Bill Sweeney and Conor O’Shea.

Injuries are inevitable so Borthwick will end up using players outside the core 25, but even allowing for a handful for each match-day squad it is worth noting the RFU is expected to make significant savings compared with the previous appearance fee system. You would expect the clubs would want to be financially compensated for ceding a degree of control of their players but the RFU says that is still being worked through.

However, there are limitations to the level of authority Borthwick will possess. O’Shea mentions conditioning and alludes to potential involvement in determining the number and selection of club matches for players, as well as centralized performance data and standardized fitness testing. Yet, Borthwick will not have the ability to dictate that Harlequins play Marcus Smith at full-back. These limitations are already evident when looking at Sale’s young prop Asher Opoku-Fordjour. The RFU views him as a loosehead, while Sale believes he is a tighthead, and it is unclear how this discrepancy will be resolved.

As a part of the RFU’s vision, he will not have to spend his weekends in the stands. There is a strong desire to address the long-standing issue of young players not getting enough playing time. This is why they plan to limit Premiership squads to around 35 players, although some clubs have pushed back against this, citing their reliance on partnerships with universities. Additionally, there will be 12 transitional players added to the squads. The introduction of regular matches for England A will also be beneficial. O’Shea states, “Identifying talent is not enough, we need to provide opportunities for talent, and this is where English rugby has greatly failed.”

The RFU’s decision to revamp the Championship is influenced by player growth, but the main driving force appears to be the desire to bring back Wasps, Worcester, and London Irish. Championship teams are skeptical about the RFU and PRL’s dedication to promotion and relegation and prefer a “merit-based” system, meaning they do not want to see three bankrupt clubs quickly promoted back to the second division.

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A general view of the Coventry Building Society Arena home of Wasps Rugby Club

The RFU has not been able to provide an answer to the amount of funding they would receive, which the clubs are not pleased about due to the union’s inflexible attitude. According to Sweeney, if only two clubs are interested and the rest decline, the original situation will remain and the opportunity will be lost. However, they are not willing to invest in something that is not viable.

The process for participating in the revamped second tier will commence in February. While the RFU is optimistic about receiving sufficient interest to move forward, there are still significant obstacles to overcome.

It is evident that the RFU is enthusiastic about its goals, but there are some restrictions. The key to bringing about change is building positive relationships and goodwill among stakeholders, rather than relying on mandates or laws. In terms of England and the Premiership, there are promising indications. Borthwick started off at a disadvantage, but word has it that he has been working to mend previously damaged relationships since his appointment.

Diamond praises Steve’s intelligence during his time in the job, stating that Eddie Jones had once visited Sale and only asked to have Ben Curry play at scrum-half.

The RFU’s connection with the Championship clubs still has room for improvement.

Source: theguardian.com