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Sweat and Tears continue to flow over Tier 2 proposals

Updated: Apr 15

.... AND THESE ARE JUST FROM YOUR CORRESPONDENT.


The ongoing Tier 2 negotiations are, we believe, the biggest stumbling block in the path of a Worcester Warriors Professional Men's rugby team taking the field at Sixways in September 2025 for the start of a revitalised second tier competition. Although discussions have been ongoing for many months, the publicised details are relatively scant. We thought it might be helpful to give you some context and background for the current situation and do a "deep dive" into all things PGP, CCC, RFU & P II.

It has turned into a pretty hefty read so, in case you don't make it to the end, I'd like to give you the viewpoint of most WWST members right up front. I make no apologies for what inevitably will be interpreted as a selfish, self-preserving, self-protective, "it's-all-about-me", one-eyed, tunnel-visioned, blinkered, narrow-minded, cyclopean Worcester Warrior's perspective:


Worcester Warriors supporters and the wider West Midlands rugby-public have been punished enough for the previous directors' incompetence and possible malfeasance. The heart of our rugby community was ripped out when the club entered a disastrous administration process over 18 months ago. Supporters have been left with no professional team to cheer for; local clubs have lost the community support and experience that a "big-brother" brings; local kids have had no rugby heroes to look up to; local teenagers no longer have an Academy on their doorstep where they can train alongside not just their peers but elite level players; our club's players have had to move to rival clubs, hang up their boots or even look abroad for work; our coaches, medical staff, physiotherapists, nutritionists have all moved on, as have the vast majority of the backroom staff at Sixways Stadium. It has been like a bereavement - all the emotions spiralling around: shock, anguish, loss, anger, guilt, regret, anxiety, fear, loneliness, unhappiness and, for some, no doubt, depression. This may sound over-dramatic but it is not. A huge hole has been left in our lives which many are still struggling to fill.


If, when the negotiations conclude, we are not to be offered a place in the new Tier 2 competition then this, very likely, will be the final nail in the coffin of Worcester Warriors. And who is punished for that? Not the previous owners or directors, not even the previous players and coaches who have, by and large, courageously moved on with their lives, many with outstanding success. The ones to take the punishment are the little people - primarily the supporters, who have a deep affinity with the club that has been a huge part of their lives.


We beseech those taking part in the ongoing negotiations to think of the thousands of rugby fans around the West Midlands who are desperate to pull Warriors back from the brink of oblivion.




Please do not push your rugby friends over that edge.



HERE IS THAT DEEP-DIVE:


JUNE 2023


It was in June last year that news was first reported of a potential lifeline for Warriors, London Irish & Wasps. Talks of a "creative solution" to allow the three clubs in administration to return to a revamped Premiership II league in 2025/26 were widely reported, just prior to the RFU's Performance Pre-Season Conference. It all sounded very optimistic at the time with reports of a funding increase for the Championship Clubs to enable them to make the necessary investment in their infrastructures. The "creative" part of the solution was widely thought to be the adoption of a "franchise system"; in effect a brand new league created with minimum entry requirements but open to all expressions of interest followed by a tendering process for placement in the league.


With Messrs. O'Toole & Sandford still firmly in the box seat at Sixways, the news wasn't greeted with much enthusiasm in Worcester, largely because the then owners had neither money nor viable business plan. I remember at the time thinking that a new Professional Game Partnership (fka Agreement) would, in all likelihood, be concluded long before Jim and James' latest deadline with Begbies Traynor Group expired; as a consequence Worcester Warriors would miss out on this one-off opportunity to make a rapid return to elite level rugby.


SEPTEMBER 2023


However, although there were murmurings about consultations from other supporters, there was no further press coverage of "Premiership II" until mid September, when, on the eve of the Rugby World Cup, news broke of a rebellion at HQ. In this, nearly half the RFU council members signed a letter claiming their board was "providing insufficient leadership, controls, and scrutiny over the performance of the RFU executive.” The rebel group concluded that the RFU risked financial collapse if they signed the new Professional Game Partnership, alleging they could not afford the "£128m four year deal with PRL." Within a few days it became apparent that there was also growing dissatisfaction about the proposed PGP amongst Championship clubs, when Alistair Bow, chairman of Nottingham RFC, broke cover in a letter to the Daily Telegraph:


"....the fact is that it is the RFU Executive that has dictated the timing of any rebellion by the rank and file of rugby union - and I should quickly point out that neither the Championship nor any of its representatives have signed the letter complained of.

But we do know that it is the Executive that determined the timing: by attempting to push through a new eight-year Professional Game Partnership - in league with Premiership Rugby Ltd - that would reform the professional game precisely as they want, but not as Championship clubs, nor the bulk of the community game in leagues below tier two, desire. Unconsulted and ignored, the grassroots of the game have called ‘enough’! They were not prepared to sit back politely to watch the Rugby World Cup being used as cover for the unnecessary acceleration of a reform that - to the extent that any of its secret contents can be known - appears to work against the interests of the rest of the game below the elite level of the national team and the Premiership.”


The RFU council were due to sit on Friday 29th September; their first meeting since the rebel's letter, calling for an investigation into their financial dealings, had been submitted. Matters looked all the more grim for RFU Chairman Tom Ilube and CEO Bill Sweeney when news broke the morning before that Jersey Reds (reigning champions of the RFU Championship of course) had ceased trading and faced liquidation. Later that same day, Simon Halliday, Chariman of the Championship clubs, put both feet forward in his criticism of the governing body:


“The message is that persistent uncertainty over central financial support has made it impossible for them [Jersey Reds] to carry on. In essence, their investors have said: if the governing body won't commit to you, why should we? The Championship’s owners and investors will also have noted that the RFU’s response to this tragedy was to issue a statement blaming the investors in Jersey Reds which also includes the claim that the Championship has been “fully informed” of ongoing financial discussions about the future of the professional game."


Pressure definitely seemed to be piling up on the RFU Executive; it was with some consternation therefore, that we read of peace breaking out amongst council members in Saturday morning's papers. The rebellion had been summarily quashed by the calming and balanced tones of Tom Ilube and a comprehensive, if rehashed, presentation by Chief Financial and Operations Officer, Sue Day. To quote Rob Briers, the RFU President:


"As a result of constructive and collaborative debate a proposed resolution on a governance and operation review was withdrawn by those who put it forward.”


Conor O'Shea, the RFU's Executive Performance Director also took the opportunity to brief journalists that the RFU Board had known nothing of Jersey's financial issues until news went public the day before. He also reiterated that the RFU Club Financial Viability Group were not made aware of the gravity of Jersey Reds' position.


OCTOBER 2023


It didn't take long for the Championship clubs to publicly declare their dissatisfaction at the handling of the Professional Game Partnership negotiations. They held an emergency meeting on 4th October and in a statement released the following day, they outlined their lack of confidence in the RFU. The missive also expressed their frustration at feeling excluded from the Premiership II funding discussions and player-pathway issues; both of which have direct and considerable impact on their clubs. They did agree to further assess the RFU's plans for "P II" but were insistent of a need to protect their own destiny; to help this they identified two new high profile advisers in Commercial Consultant Ben Blanco and Simon Cohen, the previous CEO at Leicester Tigers. You can read the whole statement here.


After this flurry of activity there was a period of calm, during which the average supporter presumed sensible discussions must be ongoing between the Championship Clubs Committee (CCC) and the RFU. However on 17th November the clubs issued a unified statement that must have come as a bombshell in the corridors of power at Twickenham:


"The clubs have agreed unanimously that they are opposed to the franchise model. This was concluded against the backdrop of:

  • our desire to find whole-game solutions rather than creating obstacles within the pyramid of club rugby

  • significant doubt about whether there would ever be promotion and relegation into and from the Premiership – a basic question of fairness

  • our objection to a franchise model which would allow non-meritocratic entry to Premiership II

  • our unwillingness to commit to a tender process"

This statement went on to outline the Championship's own ideas for the structure of the new Tier 2.


Not only must this have come as a bombshell to the RFU but, as supporters of Worcester Warriors, it felt like a sharp kick to the ribs while we were already lying prone in the gutter. The friendly Championship clubs, those people who were always so welcoming, appeared not to want us in their league..... but perhaps we were reading too much into the phrase "non-meritocratic" - for now the benefit of the doubt went to Mr Halliday.


DECEMBER 2023


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The RFU did not release any public comment on the CCC's latest statement, perhaps they wanted to avoid getting into a war of words, but in reality this must have triggered further ill-feeling. Instead they waited until 4 days before Christmas to formally release their plans for a "franchised" Premiership II, seemingly unchanged despite all that had gone before. This concreted the RFU's stance as one directly opposed to the unified Championship clubs. It also formalised the potential lifeline to Warriors, Wasps & London Irish with Bill Sweeney, Conor O'Shea and RFU Consultant Steve Diamond all coming down heavily in favour of a return for the stricken clubs. The tendering process for entry into the new league was set to take place between February and June 2024.


The Championship clubs were quick to respond and they showed no signs of backing down, citing that they had not been informed in advance of the RFU's commentary on the Tier 2 negotiations and reiterating their particular opposition to a non-meritocratic system ie the olive branch held out to potential phoenix clubs. Interestingly this seems to be when the term "Premiership II" disappears to be replaced by the, perhaps less emotive, "Tier 2".


JANUARY 2024


Again, there was no formal press release from the RFU but Bill Sweeney was alleged to have threatened the total withdrawal of Championship funding (already slashed from £600k pa per club pre-pandemic to £160k), in the event of non-compliance with the new proposals. Hence it was the CCC who went on the offensive in mid January with their most defiant commentary yet:


"We emphasised in our last statement our principled objections to a franchise or selection-based Tier 2. Rather than seek to discuss these objections and others, the RFU has chosen to threaten us with effective relegation to the National Leagues for non-compliance, while ignoring the unresolved questions on governance, commercial strategy, promotion/relegation, player welfare and the player development pathway. We have offered alternative proposals on the way forward to the Board without response.

The current RFU plan to present any recommendation to Council is extremely premature, until such fundamental issues are addressed and consensus reached so that the game can move forward via agreement rather than ultimatum."


This provoked a rather terse response from Rugby Union's HQ:


"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.”


The gloves, it appeared, were definitely off!


Or were they? The two parties appeared to take a step back from the brink over the following days. First Steve Lloyd, long-time owner of Doncaster Knights, poured oil on troubled waters in a long interview with the Yorkshire Post, adopting a far more conciliatory tone:


"I hope there is still a significant level of sensibility about it. I suspect there is an element of being fed-up about it with all the backwards and forwards, because there have been many conversations. Will they push ahead with it? The Championship is not saying we’re not doing it, we’re wanting to carry on as a whole, we want to continue the dialogue.

From Doncaster’s perspective, we will not cut off our nose to spite our face. If it’s necessary, would we express our interest? Yes, I would express conditional interest."


Then, a couple of days later on 15th January, Bill Sweeney was interviewed on BBC Radio Cornwall with a definite mellowing of his perceived hard-line approach:


"I'm not sure it's a total blanket of opposition. Across most of the initiatives we're actually really close. With misinformation and maybe slight misunderstanding out there, what we have got to do is come together over the next few weeks and see where the difference and find a resolution which is in the interests of all of us."

From a Warriors' perspective there was, once more, very encouraging rhetoric:


"Why wouldn't you want to have the likes of Wasps, Worcester and London Irish back in the fold? They are great rugby brand names, it's a terrible situation with them going bust post covid. If they were to come back with strong business models, good financial investment in a good geographical location - why wouldn't you want to have them in the second tier? If that enables you to get more sponsorship excitement, possibly get a broadcast deal, it brings value.

It's not a mechanism to try and get those three clubs back in, but if it means a more sustainable and better second tier then why not?"


FEBRUARY 2024


A meeting was set for February 8th between representatives Championship clubs and the RFU. We understand it was short and not particularly sweet; it was clear that much more work was required to come to a negotiated agreement and the planned start of the tendering process, with tabling of EOIs, was put back. The RFU Council Meeting on February 16th did report back:


"Following a meeting of all the Championship clubs on 8th February and an update to Council today, the RFU and Championship have agreed a revised timeline to progress plans around the development of Tier 2.  RFU Council voted, today, in favour of the principle of introducing Minimum Operating Standards for rugby’s second tier, as part of plans for the growth strategy of the league.   

Between now and Friday 29 March, the RFU and the Championship will work together to further agree the detail within the Minimum Operating Standards (MOS), establish a governance structure for the league, confirm the number of teams in the league and discuss promotion/relegation mechanics within the structures.    

Following working group meetings between now and the end of March, an update will be provided to Council at its April meeting."


MARCH 2024


Again, all went quiet until just before the apparent deadline of the end of March. The anticipation of white smoke issuing from Twickenham's chimneys receded, as Simon Halliday released another statement revealing that the deadline had been lifted:


"There is [now] no deadline for these discussions, although clearly it is important that agreement is reached as quickly as possible so that planning for both the new Tier 2 league and for the 2024/25 season can begin.

Solid progress has been made on the various issues being discussed. The parties involved believe that an agreement is within reach, although some very important topics still need to be brought to a satisfactory conclusion for all the parties.

These are vital discussions and are taking place in an intensive, progressive and co-operative atmosphere."


I have read and re-read this latest bulletin a number of times. From a Warriors' perspective it sounds slightly more encouraging; no mention of "franchises" or meritocracies. But there is a huge amount left unsaid and any deal will require the agreement not only of the RFU and The Championship clubs but also PRL and the Premiership teams it represents.


APRIL 2024


So this pretty well brings us up to date; who knows what the next few weeks will bring. What we do know is that the current PGA runs out at the end of June 2024 and must be replaced by a new PGP. The fate of Worcester, London Irish and perhaps Wasps lies out of our hands. I am sure that all members of WWST will be hoping and praying that a deal can found that enables us to open the doors of Sixways to the rugby-loving people of Worcestershire and beyond in September 2025.


Apologies for the length of this post. There are a few other topics which I mentioned in my last post which deserve a blog of their own; hopefully to follow shortly.

 



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4 Comments


Unknown member
Apr 05

Great to hear your comments Colette. It makes the hard work worthwhile to get some positive feedback! 😁

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Unknown member
Apr 05

Thanks for your hard work compiling this very helpful summary, it is much appreciated. We like in hope!

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Unknown member
Apr 05
Replying to

Thanks gratefully received and reciprocated. 👍🏻

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Unknown member
Apr 05

Thank you for this comprehensive review of the the journey Worcester Warriors have been through since their sad demise from Premiership rugby. I am sure along with many still loyal and optimistic fans that we will see a return of our beloved club. We must continue to fight for the return of our Warriors because they are so important to our sporting legacy in Worcester.

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