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T-minus 8 days and counting...

As reported in my BlogPost of April 15th the RFU's Professional Game Agreement (PGA) expires at the end of this month. Negotiations towards a new Professional Game Partnership (PGP) have been ongoing for nigh on two years, although I understand that the initial seven months were largely taken up by discussions over the name-change from an Agreement to a Partnership ;-)


When we left the chain-of-events it was clear that there was little immediate prospect of any agreement between the Championship Clubs' Committee (CCC) and the RFU on a prospective English Tier 2 league. In my final paragraph I posed the question "Who knows what the next few weeks will bring?" Well, I'm going to attempt to answer that question by summarising the various newspaper stories that have been circulating in the interim.


APRIL/MAY 2024


Shortly after my previous post on this subject we had the perhaps encouraging news that the RFU Council had approved a 14 club Tier 2 league for 2025/26, growing to a possible 16 thereafter. With Nick Easter's Chinnor gaining promotion for next season, this would enticingly leave two places up for grabs in September 2025. Could these be for Worcester and Wasps?! Would London Irish and Jersey Reds, with new ownerships, follow suit in 2026/27?! Enthusiasm levels rapidly diminished however when it became clear that no further explanation was to be forthcoming.


The tier two negotiations were known to be ongoing but information was scarce. Simon Halliday, Chair of the CCC, had described them as "vital discussions.... taking place in an intensive, progressive and co-operative atmosphere." At the time it wouldn't have been unreasonable to assume that these discussions were tripartite between the RFU, PRL & CCC, given the fundamental importance of a 3-way agreement satisfying all parties. However on 29th April details of a bipartite agreement between the RFU & PRL were leaked to the sports and business press. Subject to legal checks, they had agreed an an annual funding package of £33m per club in the 10-team Premiership over the next 8 years. In exchange the RFU would get better access to (and control over) a squad of 25 enhanced elite players, set to be offered hybrid club/country contracts.


Most newspapers failed to even mention the plight of the Tier 2 negotiations in their reporting of this story but those that did conceded that the RFU and Premiership had yet to resolve their differences with the Championship clubs, particularly regarding the vexed issue of promotion and relegation.


Again it would not be at all unreasonable to assume at this stage, given the >40% uplift in funding for the PRL clubs, that the proposed Tier 2 league were due to be offered a similar boost to their funding. Indeed, a strong argument could be made for a much heftier increase given the near 75% cut to their funding that had been handed to the Championship clubs between 2019 & 2021. [Under the 2016 PGA they had been granted ~£600k per club annually but this was slashed to ~£300k in 2019. Following Covid, this was further reduced to around £150k, the current rate of central funding]. We knew that in January of this year the RFU had committed to a budget of £4m pa for the new Tier 2 competition; a headline figure of around £330k per club per year. This amounts to a staggering 10-fold reduction on the offer to Premiership clubs. However, it gets worse: once money for central initiatives, player development and club insurance is taken into consideration the real boost to a club's coffers is a paltry £90k per year.


My presumption at the time was that the negotiations between the RFU and CCC, would settle on a significantly better financial deal for Tier 2 alongside further reductions in the Minimum Standards Criteria for Premiership entry. Perhaps the maintenance of a relegation play-off between the bottom team in the Prem and the top team in Tier 2 would be the bitter pill that the CCC would have to swallow to come to a compromise deal.


One issue that has been hard to gauge is just how vehemently opposed the Championship clubs are to playing in a league alongside a phoenix Worcester Warriors, Wasps, London Irish or Jersey Reds. Knowing that the RFU had vocalised support for our return had left me believing that the CCC's outspoken condemnation of what they termed "franchise clubs" was perhaps more of a negotiating tool. Surely a compromise would be reached; we just hoped that would include a place for Warriors.



Worcester Warriors , Championship Winners 2014/15 © Ian Smith Photography


Throughout the month of May several editorials appeared in the rugby press in support of the Championship Clubs' position - with particular regard to central funding and the importance of promotion and relegation. Some, like Stephen Jones in The Sunday Times, were also supportive of a Warriors return:


"The game should accept a play-off between the top two leagues next season, then straight up and down afterwards, no parachute payment for the relegated team...........Despite hysterical and, frankly, jealous demands that all three organisations [Wasps, Worcester Warriors and London Irish] should be excluded, they should be returned to the Championship as soon as they are on an even keel."


Others, including Jeff Probyn in The Rugby Paper, have been less sympathetic:


"Wasps and Worcester have had close to 30 years of the professional game so should have been more aware of their financial situations..... what was decided as the restart for Richmond, London Welsh and others, has set a precedent that Wasps and Worcester must surely now follow ?" [sic]


JUNE 2024


As has been the way of things since the rancour between the CCC and RFU became official public knowledge in October 2023, it fell to the Championship Clubs to break the silence that had been deafening since the last RFU council meeting in April. Rumours that the RFU had effectively pulled the plug on negotiations were confirmed in a lengthy statement from the clubs outlining their position. The statement initially appeared on the Nottingham RFC website on Friday night and was quickly picked up by the RugbyPass website. It then mysteriously disappeared, prompting hopes of a last minute resolution, only to reappear on several Championship sites on Monday evening, presumably following legal checks.


The full statement is accessible below but the tone is set in the first couple of paragraphs:


"After nearly two years of discussion, which have been characterised by the RFU agreeing positions, sometimes unilaterally or in separate negotiations on the Professional Game Partnership (PGP) – from which we have been excluded – we have now been presented with a proposition which we cannot accept as to do so would risk potential bankruptcy for Championship clubs and would also further isolate the Premiership to the detriment of the game in England." 



ChampionshipClubStatement
.docx
Download DOCX • 15KB


There follows a lengthy and very rational explanation of the clubs' concerns. The statement concludes with a direct appeal to the RFU Board to re-open talks and, perhaps more tellingly, an indirect appeal to the RFU Council which sits on Friday 14th June to consider the Boards's proposals for the PGP; these are expected to include the composition and governance of the new Tier 2.


"We continue to seek urgent meetings with the Board to discuss our solutions, which we believe are deliverable and realistic. In that regard, The RFU Council, which is mandated to be guardians of the whole game and meets later this month, should intervene, request a review of our position, and help facilitate a whole-game solution, particularly in the matter of promotion and relegation."


It is perhaps of interest that no further reference was made to any resistance to a resurgent Worcester Warriors, London Irish or Wasps. Neither was any positive position evident however.


The responses to the Championship Clubs' statement have not been so widely publicised. It seems that only one journalist, the excellent Matt Hardy from City AM, has bothered to go looking for feedback from the two organisations held responsible for the stalled talks. Simon Massie-Taylor's words will win him few friends below his chosen ten. In particular his thinly-veiled support of ring-fencing does not sit well with those wishing for a healthily competitive two tier professional game:


"We are in a reality at the moment with the Premiership where you can argue a case strongly around ring-fencing the Premiership to preserve the clubs and allow them to rebuild."


PRL RFU RESPONSE
.docx
Download DOCX • 13KB


The RFU fared little better with scant substance to their response. Tellingly, the reference to next week's Council meeting appears to reinforce their position that time is virtually up:


"We will be disappointed if the Championship clubs choose to disengage in the process and will continue to work with key stakeholders ahead of next week’s RFU Council meeting."


So, where does this leave Worcester Warriors? Well, perhaps we are not really any further forward than we were in Part One of this saga. We do know however that the current ownership at Sixways have formerly tendered an application to play in the RFU's Tier 2 league in 2025/26. We may have gone from a position of not being welcome in the league to being the only side in that division - Champions, mid-table mediocrity & a relegation battle all in one season!


WHAT NEXT?


Friday 14th June: RFU Council Meeting scheduled to vote on proposals put forward for the new Professional Game Partnership.


5pm on Monday 17th June: RFU Annual General Meeting. Details of the agenda and the makeup of the RFU Council membership can be found here.


Sunday 30th June: Professional Game Agreement for English Rugby expires.

 

From my perspective, priority number one is to have Worcester Warriors playing again at Sixways Stadium. That said, I would dearly love them to be part of an equitably funded, two tier, 24 team professional league split into two divisions with guaranteed promotion between the two.


As a supporter, would I accept an offer based on the current RFU terms?


I refer you to priority number one....




... to be continued.




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