Championship clubs hit back at Bill Sweeney’s ‘unacceptable’ ultimatum

RFU Chief Executive Officer Bill Sweeney attends a press conference to announce Steve Borthwick as England Rugby Men’s Head Coach during a press conference at Twickenham Stadium on December 19, 2022 in London, England
RFU Chief Executive Officer Bill Sweeney attends a press conference to announce Steve Borthwick as England Rugby Men’s Head Coach during a press conference at Twickenham Stadium on December 19, 2022 in London, England

Rugby Football Union chief executive Bill Sweeney’s ultimatum over Premiership 2 has been branded “unacceptable” by Championship clubs who warned the England team will be significantly damaged if they are forced into the community game.

Championship clubs remain united against the governing body’s vision of bringing in a franchise-based Premiership 2, including a potentially reformed Wasps. The clubs’ primary objections centre around the lack of detail on promotion to the Premiership, player development plans, governance and funding, which could be reduced by half in the new Premiership 2. The tender process for the league, which is supposed to launch for the 2025/26 season, closes in February.

Sweeney last month insisted that if not enough clubs signed up “then you revert back to the status quo and you lose this opportunity.” However, Simon Halliday, chairman of the Championship clubs, appealed to the RFU Council and Sport England to stop them from being exiled into the community game.

“What Bill said before Christmas is unacceptable,” Halliday said. “It is just binary. Why does that need to be the outcome? So it needs to be challenged and I think the majority of the game would expect us to challenge it. I think the outcome is easily found and we collectively wish to find that solution. We don’t want to have it imposed upon us, particularly when it is not a whole-game solution.”

Telegraph Sport understands that the RFU has made direct appeals to a number of National 1 clubs, including Rams in Berkshire and Darlington Mowden Park, to join Premiership 2. While there have been numerous meetings at Twickenham, the Championship clubs believe their views have consistently been ignored with Alistair Bow, the vice-chairman of the clubs and chairman of flood-hit Nottingham, directly accusing Sweeney of disrespecting them in a meeting in August.

Referee Simon Harding awards a try to Cornish Pirates during the Greene King IPA Championship match between Ampthill and Cornish Pirates at Dillingham Park on March 14, 2020 in Ampthill, England
Championship clubs, like Ampthill, are unhappy with the RFU's proposals for the second tier of English rugby union - Getty Images/David Rogers

“They twist it to suit their own agenda on that particular day,” Bow said. “It gets extremely frustrating, especially when the chief executive will sit there and spend the whole time on his phone. We are doing our utmost to engage but it’s very difficult when you’ve got some people who obviously don’t want to engage.”

Funding at the heart of the problem

Under plans shared with the Championship, the RFU would commit to providing £4 million for the proposed Premiership 2. However, £1.4 million will be kept by the RFU for central initiatives such as marketing, £1 million will be allocated towards player development, leaving just £1.6 million for the 11 clubs. Minus an estimated £600,000 for insurance and that would give each team around £80-90,000, which is less than the paltry £160,000 they currently receive in central funding. Championship clubs would also have to pay to meet the new minimum standards to enter Premiership 2.

“So technically the new tier two competition is 50 per cent less funded than where we are today,” Bow said. “We need to get rid of the myth that everything we are doing is about funding. We have invested around £200 million from owners into this league since the Championship was formed. We want to protect that £200 million. We are happy to continue investing but we want other people to come on board and invest with us. At the moment the RFU are the smallest investors in the league by some distance.”

The Championship clubs are presenting a united front in the face of the RFU’s advances. Conor O’Shea, the RFU’s performance director, admits that Premiership 2 would be a critical role in the pathway for young English players, but as Sweeney conceded they would not be able to form a Premiership 2 without a significant section of clubs breaking away.

With the RFU holding the purse strings, the Championship has seemingly little leverage in the negotiations, but Simon Cohen, the former Leicester chief executive now advising the Championship, argues the second tier is fundamental to giving the next generation of English players game time.

“If you are talking about leverage, the Premiership is going to go to 37 players plus 12 transition so they’re going to cut their squads significantly,” Cohen said. “England are lacking in players coming through and depth in certain positions. If you are correct in what they say is all they want is the best possible England team then in order to do that they need the Championship clubs. They need that game time and they need that game time in the right environment and right context to produce those players because you are not going to produce them in an academy system that is going into 37 plus 12.”

The RFU remains hopeful that the Championship clubs will still apply to Premiership 2. A spokesperson said: “The RFU has been consulting with Championship clubs for over a year. We have researched and produced a commercial strategy and provided the clubs with confirmed funding at at least existing levels for 24/25 season and proposals for increased funding from 25/26 season. We will continue to consult with Championship clubs and very much hope that they choose to be part of what could become a more thriving and sustainable second professional tier.”

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.