London (AFP) - An estimated 200 players face being unemployed after the Rugby Football Union (RFU) stunned second tier Championship clubs by informing them they were slashing their budgets by 50 percent next season.
A Championship club source told The Guardian that with the budget slashes coming in next term 200 players face being laid off whilst the RFU have also been accused of 'ring-fencing' the Premiership.
The 12 Championship clubs, which vary hugely in budget and size from the likes of Newcastle Falcons - set to make an immediate return to the elite - to Hartpury College, were told of the swingeing cuts at a meeting on Tuesday with RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney and director of performance Conor O'Shea.
They told the clubs the annual funding would be reduced from £530,000 to £280,000 a year from July -- roughly £3 million a year in total.
There is a £6 million spending gap with the Premiership clubs.
- Ring-fencing Premiership -
Saracens are due to drop down next season -- for refusing to open their books to the authorities for this season after breaching the salary cap on several occasions -- but the main stars are remaining so the slash in budget will limit their rivals' chances of competing with them for promotion.
"It's the RFU saying it doesn't want the Championship," Nottingham chairman Alistair Bow told The Guardian.
"The Premiership has had a lot of influence over all the decisions regarding the Championship, certainly for the 10 years I've been involved.
"I do strongly believe the actions the RFU has taken have handed PRL everything on a plate and without having to pay a penny for it.
"The RFU has handed English professional rugby … everything, to the hands of PRL."
The RFU, though, claim the cuts are being implemented due to the Championship failing to fulfil five strategic targets in return for a significant rise in funding after the successful hosting of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Sweeney denied this shut off promotion from the second tier to the top one.
"The RFU is not using this as a means to seal (the Premiership) off," Sweeney was cited as saying in The Daily Telegraph.
"We don't think this is an amount of money which defines whether or not you can go for that.
"But clearly there will be speculation that this is a direction (ring-fencing) in terms of the way the game is going."
- 'Semi-pro model' -
Sweeney, though, said the clubs had failed in their strategic targets despite receiving the £6 million a year funding since the 2015 World Cup.
Two that were cited was failing to make the Championship financially secure -- the clubs lose £260,000 a year on average -- and not becoming a production line in terms of producing English-qualified players for both the top tier and the national team.
Sweeney conceded the slashing of the funding would oblige the clubs to revert to a "semi-pro model".
According to figures in The Daily Telegraph average attendance figures do not make pretty reading for the second tier.
Newcastle lead the way with an average of 4,527 a match but even the well-funded Ealing Trailfinders, based in west London, struggle for spectators with just an average of 927.