English rugby ‘on the cusp of something spectacular’ despite year of turmoil, claims RFU CEO Bill Sweeney

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

English rugby is “on the cusp of something quite spectacular”, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) has claimed, despite a year of turmoil for the sport.

The last 12 months has seen four professional clubs go into administration, the sacking of England head coach Eddie Jones and the introduction of an unpopular tackle height law change to the community game.

But Bill Sweeney, who has just seen off an internal revolt from a cabal of displeased members of the RFU’s council, insists that brighter times are ahead for rugby as the RFU and Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL) prepare for a revamp of the running of the professional sport.

The union is nearing the end of negotiations over a new Professional Game Partnership (PGP) with PRL and the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA) that will result in what Sweeney, outlined as a unified approach that it is hoped will alleviate the club/country tensions that have undermined the sport in England since the dawn of professionalism in 1995.

This will include approximately 25 hybrid contracts that will allow the national team much closer control over their top players, a remodelled “Premiership Two” to maximise the efficacy and commercial potential of the English second tier, and a new financial monitoring panel to ensure sustainability of clubs. The renegotiated PGP will commence at the start of the 2024/25 season.

Insisting that the union is in a “much better financial situation than five years ago” and currently had no debt, the under-fire Sweeney believes he is the right person to see the RFU’s plans through with full details of the new PGP expected to be unveiled by the end of the year.

“I do believe that we are on the cusp of something quite spectacular here,” Sweeney, speaking publicly for the first time in nine months, said. “This has been a unique moment in time, because of the financial challenges, the working relationship with PRL and our ability to change the relationship around the partnership, to fix the things that have stopped us winning Six Nations championships on a regular basis.

“The work we are doing with World Rugby around the Nations Cup and global calendar plays into this as well. I feel that I have the energy, passion and desire to see this through.

“We’ve gone through a very difficult period but coming out of that I feel we are going to have more robust financial controls in place to enable us to deal with that. The broadcast market is tough. There is a lack of competition in that, but we do feel that is shifting. There are a lot of things happening in terms of competition structures that will provide a more compelling product.

“I still believe in rugby as a sport. I sometimes think we look at things a bit from a half-empty perspective and we need to be more optimistic in terms of the direction things are heading in.

“We’ve gone through some really dark and difficult times but we can see what we need to do to make it better.”

While England are enjoying a strong World Cup so far and are already assured of a quarter-final place, they have failed to contend in each of the last three Six Nations campaigns and entered the tournament on the back of a historic first defeat to Fiji.

England are enjoying a good World Cup but Bill Sweeney insists changes must be made (Getty Images)
England are enjoying a good World Cup but Bill Sweeney insists changes must be made (Getty Images)

Sweeney believes that the new partnership agreement is vital to get the best out a union that he admits has been underperforming.

“To a certain extent, we have to block out the noise and focus on getting stuff done,” the former British Olympic chief said. “We have to fix a number of issues that have been suboptimal for some time.

“There are certain issues that have been persistent and structural that need to be addressed if we are going to get stuff done. We’ve won four [men’s] Six Nations championships in 20 years since 2003; we’ve won World Cup. That’s not what you’d expect from us as an organisation.

“Wherever we end up in this year’s World Cup, the system has to change. We’ve had successive management teams in place and the fundamental issues have not been addressed. That is what we are really focussed on doing.

“The opportunity around the Professional Game Partnership is to bring the elite game together and make sure we can thrive.”

The exact structure of the “Premiership Two” and other details within the new agreement are yet to be finalised, and will require sign-off from the RFU council.

The level of funding available to clubs hoping to be part of the revamped second tier also remains unclear, and was cited by Jersey Reds as a reason for the withdrawal from their investors that led to the club’s demise last week.

Jersey followed Worcester Warriors, Wasps and London Irish into oblivion, plunging the future for yet more players and staff into doubt, but Sweeney has denied accusations that the RFU were warned of the island club’s precarious situation, suggesting it had taken his organisation by complete surprise.

“We had not had one single warning about the plight from Jersey,” Sweeney said. “What Covid did is expose any weaknesses or flaws in any business model. Any area where organisations were under stress, Covid really exposed that. That’s what we saw with London Irish, specific reasons around Wasps and specific reasons around Worcester.

The RFU have been criticised after the demise of Championship winners Jersey (Getty Images)
The RFU have been criticised after the demise of Championship winners Jersey (Getty Images)

“At the RFU, we don’t have financial oversight over what are independently-run organisations. Frankly, it’s not our role to prop up financially-failing businesses.”