Ruthless RFU must act and hand grassroots clubs a lifeline

CHRIS FOY: Ruthless RFU must act and hand grassroots clubs a lifeline during the coronavirus crisis

  • The RFU must provide financial aid to clubs during the coronavirus crisis
  • Midlands 1 East club Peterborough found they would not receive funding
  • The RFU’s annual report said it wants to encourage rugby across England 

When the RFU released their annual report in December, the grand document contained an opening page which stated: ‘Our purpose: to encourage rugby, and its values, to flourish across England.’ 

At Peterborough Rugby Club, they now doubt the sincerity of that message. 

Last Thursday, hours after RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney had announced Eddie Jones’s contract as England head coach — worth £750,000 per year — would be extended until the conclusion of the 2023 World Cup, the Midlands 1 East club learned that they would not be entitled to any funding from Twickenham to alleviate the coronavirus shutdown. 

The RFU and Bill Sweeney must hand grassroots clubs a lifeline during the coronavirus crisis

An administrative oversight had already proved costly. Last summer, they were a day late submitting a declaration to the RFU that, as a level-six amateur club, they do not pay players. 

The deadline was strictly enforced and the union withheld funding for the 2019-20 season. 

Peterborough appealed in vain at a time they needed money to expand their clubhouse, to accommodate a thriving age grade set-up. Each weekend, they host up to 500 juniors. 

Now Peterborough have been stunned to discover their one-day delay is being held against them during this virus crisis. 

The union have said they won’t receive emergency funds, when they fear the loss of between £60,000 and £80,000 due to the cancellation of beer festivals, weddings, dinners, dog shows and other functions. 

Midlands 1 East club Peterborough learned they would not receive funding from Twickenham

This is another example of the governing body acting as a ruthless business, apparently more mindful of profit than the wellbeing of the sport around the country. 

Last autumn, clubs were told that funds would be available to promote the World Cup in their clubhouses, so Peterborough and others in their region made grand plans, only to discover the money being offered through the East Midlands RFU was just £50 each for 10 clubs. 

In their annual report, the RFU announced revenue of £213million for the 2018-19 financial year — a rise of 24 per cent and more than twice as much as the New Zealand Rugby Union. Yet there was a reduction in investment for rugby development, while spending on the men’s senior national team remains ‘ring-fenced’. 

Earlier this year, Sweeney announced savage cuts to funding for clubs in the RFU Championship. He was castigated by officials from those clubs for the cuts, the lack of warning and consultation, and a dearth of compassion. 

Clubs are seeking financial aid in the chaos caused by the deadly coronavirus pandemic

More recently, the RFU stayed silent as the pandemic took hold while their counterparts in Scotland and Wales promised vital bailout investment. When they eventually announced aid measures, the primary concern appeared to be future union losses rather than short-term hardship at grassroots level. 

This column has seen correspondence between officials within the club game expressing anger and dismay at the union. 

A former senior Twickenham figure wrote: ‘The RFU’s failure to announce immediate financial support to clubs is a disgrace and shows the RFU management board is incompetent and not fit for purpose. Clubs may well go under, never to be resurrected.’ 

There are rumblings that clubs will attempt to force a special general meeting, with a view to pushing for a vote of no confidence in the hierarchy. At a time when true leadership is needed, English rugby is lamenting the absence of it. 

Out in the shires, they want the RFU to be fit for their published purpose. That could mean relaxing regulations and red tape to help Peterborough and other clubs in need and the game at large. Count the costs some other time. 

Five key chances predicted for rugby 

Rugby management company Esportif have published their 2020 international rugby report, which contains fascinating data from the leading nations. It predicts five key changes in rugby by 2025. These include global calendar alignment (long craved but not realised), a British and Irish league — causing a reduction in European competition, and growth in the USA on the back of a successful bid to host the World Cup. 

The latter should come to pass as there is set to be a tournament in the Americas in 2027. A British and Irish league would have great appeal, but only if some continental competition was retained — and if steps were taken to avoid Italian professional rugby ceasing to exist.

Growth in the USA is one of a number of big changes predicted for rugby by 2025

The Last Word 

Finn Russell has been in regular contact with Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend, with a view to ending their feud and allowing the Racing 92 fly-half to return from Test exile. 

Reflecting on the dispute which saw Russell abruptly depart the Scottish camp, miss the Six Nations and reveal a strained relationship with Townsend, he told BT Sport: ‘Things got blown out of proportion. It’s not like there was a massive disagreement where I was saying, “I’ll never play for you again”. That’s the target we’ve both got; to be on the same page and working together — better than ever.’ 

Here’s hoping they resolve their differences. Whenever this shutdown ends, rugby needs all of its great entertainers to raise morale and reignite the sport. Russell is a fixture in that category. It is not just Scots who want to see him operating at the top level again as soon as possible. 

Here’s hoping Finn Russell can return from Test exile at the end of the coronavirus crisis

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