RFU chief Bill Sweeney may face no-confidence vote over new tackle laws

RFU faces vote of no confidence as clubs unite to fight new tackle laws - Getty Images
RFU faces vote of no confidence as clubs unite to fight new tackle laws - Getty Images

Momentum is building towards a vote of no confidence in Bill Sweeney, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, with close to 250 clubs now in support of a special general meeting (SGM) in the wake of the governing body’s move to implement new tackle laws.

Community Clubs Union (CCU), an independent organisation launched just three days ago in response to last Monday’s announcement on the lowering of the legal tackle height in the community game, has spearheaded the campaign.

They are hoping today to reach final sign-off on a letter requesting the SGM, which requires the support of at least 100 members of the union, and are coordinating the process of collecting letters from each dissenting club. There were 246 of these as of 8am on Thursday.

These letters must be signed by a chairperson and a secretary, and CCU is mindful of the need to be accurate in their wording because previous attempts to call them have “fallen apart at the last minute” because of technical difficulties.

On Wednesday evening, the RFU appeared to reinforce its intention to implement the tackle law and released a statement suggesting that a similar trial in France had brought about “a more exciting game to play and watch”.

One major concern among community clubs is that the French trial carried key differences to the RFU’s proposals, such as there only being a single defender permitted in any one tackle and that it was brought in at the sixth tier of the men’s amateur game rather than the third, as will be the case in England.

The RFU’s statement also promised “a period of engagement in the coming weeks” and laid out its plans to support players, coaches and referees.

“We will publish further information, including videos and FAQs, in the coming days to provide further guidance,” it read.

"This will be followed by a multi-format training offer which will include face-to-face, webinar, e-Learning and will be offered in the lead up to, and throughout, next season to players, referees and coaches.

“We will also provide targeted communications to the 150,000+ affiliated age grade players and their parents to share appropriate learning content tailored for each age grade that they can use to further develop their tackle and contact skills.”

'A full and frank debate'

This has only appeared to stoke disdain among those in the community game, many of whom have been frustrated by the RFU’s communication of these proposals which were first revealed by Telegraph Sport last month. It is understood that only 14 of 62 RFU councillors asked for a delay to the vote on tackle laws in order to consult with their clubs.

CCU has circulated a letter outlining the processes behind mandating a council member to rescind the vote and how to remove a council member. The latter requires support from four clubs within the constituent body, which would force a vote.

Correspondence on Tuesday between RFU council members, seen by Telegraph Sport, indicated that “a full and frank debate” would be taking place on Thursday evening in a bid to determine how the tackle-height trial will “impact on the community game, volunteers and participants” and “the engagement and communications strategy that supported the decision”.

Annus horribilis

This vicious backlash compounds something of an annus horribilis for Sweeney. At the end of the 2022 Six Nations, the RFU was roundly criticised for issuing a statement that declared themselves pleased with England’s direction of travel under Eddie Jones despite losing three matches in the second successive Six Nations tournament.

Jones was then sacked in December, yet has been allowed to take up the role of head coach of Australia, leaving him in line to coach against England at the 2023 World Cup, because he did not sign a no-compete clause.

Elsewhere, in the professional club game, Sweeney appeared in front of a select committee for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in November following the financial collapse of both Worcester Warriors and Wasps.

There, he was accused of “living in isolation in your ivory tower”. Last month, Sweeney was asked whether he had considered his position, as he had been urged to by the DCMS select committee.

“I love this job,” Sweeney said. “It’s a privilege to do it. It’s quite demanding at times, we’ve spoken about 2022, and I believe I’ve got the full backing of the board. That’s not my decision to make, if somebody else thinks differently.”