The RFU’s 10-year-plan for the Premier 15s under severe Pressure

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 Hour by hour news from Sixways grows more complex and more disturbing. Several members of the Warriors’ men’s team are allegedly attempting to cut their ties with the club over non-payment of wages.

Trying to squeeze the truth out of the rumours and counter-rumours is like trying to squeeze water out of a stone.

All of this has a direct bearing on the women’s section. Jo Yapp. an experienced and trusted figure as DoR, has been trying to sort out alternative sources of medical back-up after the club informed the players that they could not rely on full cover.

We must set this distressing news against the RFU’s document, published on 30 June, laying out its great 10-Year-Plan.

One or two points become more relevant than the committee can ever have imagined as they started their year-long discussions.

They use the phrase ‘a sustainable domestic league’ early on. That is one feature that has noticeably failed in the five years of the Premier 15s. Two clubs, Worcester and Wasps, are engaged in earnest discussions with HMRC. Darlington Mowden Park Sharks were on the verge of extinction till recently.

‘A remuneration cap will be in place in order to ensure a level playing field’. This aim too has been noticeable for its absence since 2017. The rich clubs have grown relatively richer. DMPS had to resort to crowdfunding to meet the RFU’s expectations. Strangely, the moment the club announced it had collected £26,000, the RFU accepted their wish for reinstatement. Would they have accepted any amount, to save themselves the messy business of rejigging the coming season with one club fewer?

Once more the RFU repeats its laudable aim ‘for there to be clubs geographically covering the whole of England’.

It has to be admitted that the policy has been an evident failure thus far. DMPS’s travails (NE) have been well publicised, but even Sale Sharks, (NW) brought into the fold to replace Firwood Waterloo (even further NW), have found life distinctly tough. They didn’t have the money to wave fat cheques at the most talented players. Those that signed on have performed with tremendous endeavour, but it wasn’t enough to raise them above ninth place out of ten last season.

The richest clubs are in London. Somehow the RFU needs to tip the balance to even up the economic disparities between north and south. I leave it to them to sort out how they achieve this. If the same financial imbalances remain, then Tony Rowe’s millions at Exeter will make success inevitable – at the expense of less well-funded clubs.

The statement is keen to stress the increasing competitiveness of the league. Yes, standards go on rising, the Red Roses profit directly, but club allocations in Simon Middleton’s latest XXIII show how a very few clubs are strangling the life out of the others.

To wit:

Saracens                                7 (showing no signs of weakening their domination of the scene. Quite the reverse)
Gloucester-Hartpury          5 (helped by Gloucester RFC’s new-found generosity)
Loughborough                     5 (well done!)
Quins                                      4 (relative poverty for a prosperous club)
Wasps                                    1 (a worrying struggle at present)
Exeter                                    1 (their first Red Rose, Claudia Macdonald, captured from ailing Wasps)
Bristol                                    0 (amazing! But Middleton didn’t need to check the likes of Abbie Ward/Sarah Bern for USA game)

Sale, Worcester and DMPS are nowhere to be found. How tight will the competition be next November, if those three clubs are not given a leg-up? The league needs to avoid one-sided matches at all costs, or the hoped-for increased attendances in larger stadiums will prove tricky to achieve, and make media coverage harder to sustain. DMPS leaked 1240 points in 18 matches last season. Will that sum of £26,000 improve their fate measurably? The RFU moved in to help the club last season; the benefits it brought went unremarked and uncommented. The team shipped over 100 points three times and 97 once.

What results did the RFU expect from them as they welcomed them back to the party? The players showed the most enormous courage and resilience in completing the season, but surely no rugby player should be expected to face such odds.

A fully professional League

The statement lays great emphasis on establishing the first fully professional league in the world. What it does not outline is how it will attempt to convince so many gifted amateurs to give up their hard-won careers for the dangerously uncertain life as a pro rugby player. It is strange that no hint is offered throughout the extended submission as to how that is to be achieved.

Since this is a central issue in the future of the new-look league, how could so many intelligent people not discuss it in detail?