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A Tale of Two Tiers

In my previous post I stressed the importance of Friday's RFU Council meeting as well as their AGM scheduled for this evening. We may not have learnt much about the fate of Worcester Warriors but, as supporters of English rugby, we must be very grateful that the RFU and the Championship Clubs have managed to build the foundations of an agreement. Without this last-gasp convergence there was a real danger that the likes of Bedford, Coventry, Ealing and Cornish Pirates would be consigned to play alongside semi-pro teams in the National Leagues. This would inevitably have caused a huge rift in the sport and perhaps a Tier Two competition left without credible component teams.


So, what has changed in the last week to rescue the situation and what is the impact on a potential return for Warriors? Let's have a look at the relevant parts of the two statements and see what we can glean.


RFU COUNCIL MEETING UPDATE, FRIDAY 14th JUNE


Today, Council approved the mechanism for promotion and relegation which will be a two-match home and away play-off between the bottom placed Premiership club and the winner of the Championship/Tier 2, provided that that latter club meets the Minimum Standards Criteria in place at the relevant time. This continues to allow for promotion and relegation, better provides a mechanism to determine on-field competitiveness and takes into consideration the financial challenges of clubs in both leagues.


Tier 2

Since February 2023, and as part of our transformation of the men’s professional game through the MPGP, the RFU, Championship Club Committee and Premiership Rugby Limited have been working to develop a reimagined Tier 2. The objective is to create a second tier that supports the English system by developing young English talent, whilst supporting the clubs to become financially sustainable by growing local audiences and increasing the value in the league. 

In April 2024, Council approved the principles of a new governance structure, the Minimum Operating Standards, and the principle of Tier 2 comprising 14 clubs from 2025/26.  

Since April, we have been working with the extended Championship Executive team to reach final agreement on the following components of the league: 

  • Funding. 

  • Delegation to a new Tier 2 Board. 

  • The timeline to complete the MOS self-validation process. 

  • The competition structure. 

Today, Council was updated on the progress made since its April meeting and members approved the revised Minimum Operating Standards self-validation timeline and final delegation of authority to the Tier 2 Board. The final decision on the exact format of the 14-team league will be made by the Tier 2 Board no later than the 1 August 2024, with the mechanism for any new teams in the league to be decided by Council and announced ahead of the new season. This timeline preserves the commitment that we have made to ensure that all clubs have at least 12 months’ notice of any major changes to the RFU leagues. 


STATEMENT BY THE CHAMPIONSHIP CLUBS, FRIDAY 14th JUNE


The Championship has today (Friday June 14th 2024) won the right to a realistic chance of promotion to the top-tier of the game and taken control of its destiny with the creation of a new, independently-chaired Tier 2 Board of governance.

The RFU Council today approved a promotion and relegation deal that the Championship clubs have been fighting for since the beginning of 2023.

The deal means that in order to be eligible for promotion, the minimum operating standards have been relaxed to make them more achievable and the deadline for achieving those standards will be spread over four seasons. Full details will be announced in due course.

Previously, the terms and conditions of entry had been unacceptable to Championship clubs, because the amount of investment needed and the shorter timetable made them impracticable to a potential promotion candidate.

In its meeting today, the RFU Council also approved the new Tier 2 Board, a body with an equal representation of Championship and RFU members, chaired by an independent person. That Board will take decisions affecting the commercial exploitation of the second-tier league, hence allowing our clubs to make the most of their marketing, media and broadcasting rights.

The clubs believe these changes herald a new era for the professional game in England. They set the current 12 clubs – and all those who wish one day to join them – onto a brighter footing.

With an agreed pathway to promotion, many of the current league’s clubs will now start the planning and investment that will give them a fighting chance to be the first non-P shareholder to reach the Premiership since London Welsh in 2014.

Simon Halliday, chairman of the Championship, said after the RFU Council’s vote: “We have got what we came for. Now our clubs – and every club – can realistically dream of promotion to the Premiership.

“There is now a genuine path for ambitious clubs to rise; the top tier is reconnected to the rest of the English rugby and we can use our commercial potential to fund the growth that rugby sorely needs at our level.

“This is a result that brings common resolve to our sport, guaranteeing that English rugby remains open and fair from the lowest league to the highest.”


ANALYSIS


The RFU statement opens up with their "victory" in the negotiation process: the removal of automatic promotion for the winners of the Tier 2 league. It has been widely reported that Premiership Rugby Limited has been pushing for a two-legged play off between the bottom side in the Premiership and the Championship Champions. We can probably assume that the Men's Professional Game Partnership (MPGP), agreed between the RFU and PRL, was dependent on this.


There is scant detail of the RFU's major concession to the Championship Clubs - the revision of the Minimum Operating Standards and the timeline thereof. Hereafter, reading the RFU statement, you have to concentrate pretty hard to understand exactly what has and hasn't been agreed.


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The Championship's statement is more punchy, seemingly declaring an outright victory in negotiating a pathway to possible promotion. In fact they have given significant ground in agreeing to a play-off.

The elongation of the Minimum Standards Criteria timeline is quite rightly touted as a major gain, with capacity increases now spread over four years rather than two. Simon Halliday went on to give more detail to Dan Schofield of the Daily Telegraph relaying that teams with a minimum capacity of 5,000 will be eligible for promotion as long as they have a four-year plan to increase their capacity to 7,500 and eventually 10,000. 

The establishment of a Tier 2 Board had already been agreed by Council in April. Confirmation that the board will be responsible for the governance and commercial management of the new second tier confirms that the RFU have ceded their overall control.


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Definitely Agreed:

  1. The Tier 2 League will have 14 teams from 2025/26.

  2. The new Governance structure will be a Tier 2 Board comprising two members from the Tier 2 Clubs, two members from the RFU and an independent Chairperson.


Yet to be Agreed:

  1. Competition format and structure. (The league format is unlikely to be particularly contentious, although there will inevitably be some debate around the possible reintroduction of play-offs to decide the league Champions.)

  2. RFU Funding package to the Tier 2 clubs, including parachute payments for the relegated club. (It is hard to believe that the Championship Clubs would have conceded the right to automatic promotion without some inkling that the RFU are prepared to increase their current offer of £4m per year. As we know, this compares to the £33m pa agreed to fund the smaller Premiership. It also seems inconceivable that Mr Halliday would be claiming such a major victory if the funding gap between the two tiers is to be maintained at this level. Hopefully the RFU will now return to previous funding levels of around £650k per club per year; this would represent an overall package of £9m pa. Perhaps some of this could be raised by the abandonment of the much-resented parachute payment. No deadline appears to have been set for agreement on a funding package.)

  3. The mechanism by which new teams can enter the league. (The RFU statement reveals that the mechanism by which new teams can enter the league is to be decided by the RFU Council. This is, of course, the most relevant agenda item from a Worcester Warriors perspective. My understanding is that the RFU Council are a body asked to vote on proposals rather than formulate plans themselves. It is unclear which organisation will make the recommendation - the Tier 2 Board or the RFU Executive. The Board has been given until August 1st to decide on the league format. The Council's deadline for effectively making a decision on which clubs will enter the league alongside the Championship clubs is September 7th, the start of the 2024/25 season.)


IMPACT ON WORCESTER WARRIORS SUPPORTERS


Last month I drew up a list of "Reasons to be Cheerful" as well as some areas of concern as a Warriors' supporter. All the positive points still hold strong and, in particular, WWST is working with the ownership to establish a more structured link between the club and supporters and continue to build our relationship.

We can also now remove three of the "Reasons to be Fearful" because:


  • An agreement has now been reached regarding promotion and relegation.

  • The huge gulf between the RFU and CCC has seemingly been bridged: it is now inconceivable that the Championship clubs will not join the new Tier 2.

  • The Championship clubs have not publicly mentioned any opposition to Worcester Warriors playing in the new Tier 2 in any of their recent statements. In private we have heard supportive comments from directors at several Championship clubs.


In addition there has been some positive news for young rugby players in the West Midlands with the announcement of the Coventry Rugby Regional Academy. Although this is aimed at club players in the Coventry and Warwickshire area, it could establish a blueprint for a similar set up more locally.


I continue to take some comfort from the fact that the RFU have been very particular in stressing that the Tier 2 league will have fourteen clubs in 2025/26. If they hadn't wanted any phoenix clubs to return it would have been an easy solution to keep the status quo of a 12 team division.


Let's keep everything crossed and hope we can see more scenes like this at Sixways in the years to come:


© Ian Smith Photography




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