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Bill Sweeney: RFU CEO on the future for English rugby and global calendar alingment

Growing women's game, finding funding for sevens, and Championship's future discussed by RFU chief Sweeney on Will Greenwood Podcast

A general view of Twickenham Stadium on July 6, 2015 in London, England.

This week, RFU chief executive officer Bill Sweeney joined the Will Greenwood Podcast to discuss a wide range of issues affecting rugby union at present.

Managing the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the continuing talks over creating an aligned global rugby calendar and the future of the Championship were all covered.

Here, we look at the major talking points...

Protecting the women's game and sevens plans

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the RFU's finances means that a shortfall of international match revenue between £37m to £107m, depending on best to worst-case scenarios, is projected by the governing body.

The scale of revenue reduction is dependent on the postponed Six Nations and end-of-year Tests going ahead - in whatever form they happen to be - and how many spectators, if any, are permitted to be admitted to Twickenham for those matches.

With 55 percent of the RFU's revenue coming from internationals, the amount of money being invested back into the sport is set to be affected as well.

However, Sweeney has vowed to continue supporting the burgeoning women's game, including protecting the contracts of the national team's players and funding the Premier 15s following Tyrrells' decision not to extend their initial three-year sponsorship deal.

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Saracens have won the first two editions of the Premier 15s and were leading when this season was cancelled
Image: Saracens have won the first two editions of the Premier 15s and were leading when this season was cancelled

"The women's game remains a major priority for us," Sweeney said. "We've protected the 28 professional contracts for the England women's team.

"And with the loss of the Tyrrells sponsorship - which was a blow - we're aiming to bridge that gap with direct RFU funding, so we're actually putting more money into the Premier 15s while we're still looking for a new title sponsor."

The outlay on the England sevens teams has come under scrutiny too, with Sweeney questioning if they should combine with the Scotland and Wales sides under the Great Britain banner for the full World Sevens circuit, now the variant is an Olympic sport.

He revealed there have been talks with UK Sport as well over the possibility of them putting some funding into the sevens programme.

The women's game remains a major priority for us. We've protected the 28 professional contracts for the England women's team.
Bill Sweeney

"Is this the time when you actually pull together a Team GB sevens side across the other unions?" Sweeney said.

"We've asked UK Sport for some direct funding - in most other countries, the sevens programme is funded by the local Olympic body, so we're talking to UK Sport about the possibility of funding going into Japan."

Global calendar alignment latest

Sweeney is part of World Rugby's six-man working party on aligning the global rugby union calendar, which includes his Welsh counterpart Martyn Phillips and Six Nations CEO Benjamin Morel as well.

Following initial discussions in Paris in March, at which Premiership Rugby Limited were represented too, a proposal has evolved which would see the top flight of English domestic and European club rugby run from December to July.

Image: Bill Sweeney is part of World Rugby's working group on aligning the global rugby calendar

The Six Nations would maintain its traditional February and March dates, with a further international window in October and November.

"This is an issue which has plagued the game for probably 25 years, since it went professional," Sweeney said. "If you were to start with a blank sheet of paper, your least-favoured option would be what it is now.

"So, what we're trying to do is make things better for both the clubs and the unions. We see an opportunity to separate the club game away from the international calendar, which is better for the clubs, better for the fans, better for the players and better commercially as well."

Sweeney is adamant player welfare is at the heart of any alignment plans too, with the full slate of Gallagher Premiership, European and international matches at present totalling 44 games in a season.

We see an opportunity to separate the club game away from the international calendar, which is better for the clubs, better for the fans, better for the players and better commercially as well.
Bill Sweeney

The current clashes with international and domestic matches, plus limits on playing time for contracted internationals under the agreement with the RFU and Premiership, mean no player would be involved in all of those games even now.

However, Sweeney recognises the need to bring a greater sense of order to the rugby union calendar in the professional era.

"Rugby union is the only sport in the world which has this challenge," Sweeney said. "So, you either dramatically reduce the number of games, which reduces the revenue opportunities and investment back into the game, or you find a way to manage the calendar.

"We currently have a system in place where those players can only play a maximum number of games, but you lay out a calendar in such a way where those international players have their welfare managed much more directly, and they're playing the important games for their clubs and their international sides."

The future of the Championship

While the Premiership would shift to a new window under this proposal, the rest of the rugby pyramid in this country from the Championship down to the lower levels of the community game would retain its traditional September to April format.

It could, therefore, be implied that makes the Premiership becoming ringfenced and direct promotion and relegation from the Championship being abolished more likely.

The second-tier clubs are set to suffer phased funding cuts over the next two seasons as well and while Sweeney would not be drawn on the ringfencing debate, instead acknowledging both the for and against arguments, he insisted the Championship is still an important part of the player pathway.

"We still think the Championship has a role to play and think it's a great place to develop, we just can't afford to run two professional leagues," Sweeney said.

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 17: Adam Radwan of Newcastle Falcons scores his sides first try during the Greene King IPA Championship match between Newcastle Falcons and Coventry at Kingston Park on November 17, 2019 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)
Image: Newcastle Falcons were promoted from the Championship this year

"If we were to fund the Championship to the extent it would need to be funded to make it more competitive with the Premiership, it would probably be £25m to £30m and we simply can't afford that sort of money."

However, Sweeney would like to see an elite-level university competition - taking inspiration from the NCAA system in the USA from his time there - formed to serve as an avenue for player development, which would also provide educational benefits.

"One problem we had with the old Championship set-up was the average wage of a Championship player was £17,000 a year, but that was skewed by one club so it's actually £12,000 a year," Sweeney said.

"We feel for one player committing five years to a Championship club, getting paid £12,000 a year and doesn't go into Premiership rugby, where is the back-up? We think that is something which could be really beneficial to the game overall."


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