‘On our knees’: RFU accused of running Championship down deliberately

  • ‘It’s been driven into the ground,’ says Coventry chief
  • Premiership may be slimmed down to 10 teams

The Rugby Football Union has been accused of deliberately running down the second-tier Championship with a view to reducing the number of professional teams in England. Championship clubs also predict no sides will be promoted to the Premiership for years to come despite the RFU’s continuing insistence it has no formal plans to ringfence the top league.

With negotiations over the new Professional Game Agreement between the union and the clubs approaching a critical juncture, Championship representatives are becoming increasingly concerned their league will be left “on its knees” without more funding, a scenario with major implications for aspiring young players.

One Championship insider also told the Guardian the Premiership clubs have “no intention of allowing promotion for the foreseeable future”. As things stand there is supposed to be a playoff between the bottom‑placed Premiership team and the leading Championship side at the end of the 2023-24 season, with one-up one‑down promotion and relegation theoretically resuming thereafter. But there is understood to be a move to tighten Premiership minimum standards criteria further and effectively make it impossible for any current Championship club to be promoted.

Coventry, who are in third place in the Championship and were founded 149 years ago, are among those who fear that the push for a slimmed‑down 10-team Premiership, allied to the game’s well-publicised financial difficulties, poses an existential threat to a league which should be a stepping stone to the top tier.

“It’s been purposefully driven into the ground to make it easier to get rid of,” said Nick Johnston, Coventry’s chief executive. “I think there has been a premeditated approach over the past three years to cut our funding and put us on our knees.”

All the Championship clubs, who are not represented in the PGA negotiations, have already had their central funding drastically reduced and the league has been without a sponsor for the past two seasons. “I believe we’re the only league in professional sport in this country that hasn’t had its funding reinstated after Covid,” Johnston said. “My concern is that every year they play a game. It’s last minute and we sit there and take the crumbs on the table.”

One option is for a rebranded “Premier One” and “Premier Two” structure which would keep a clear pathway for up‑and‑coming professional players who are not yet Premiership regulars. The alternative, however, would effectively involve cutting off all central funding to Championship clubs with the RFU developing the next generation via half a dozen regional academies instead.

“We are debating at the moment whether there will be funding for the second tier of clubs in this country,” said Simon Halliday, the former England centre who is part of the Championship negotiating team. “I am a relentless optimist and also believe there is an irrefutable argument. A professional second tier must be funded or else it is game over.”

If not, the Championship clubs argue, lasting damage will be done to a crucial development platform which has seen 28 former Championship players progress to play for England over the past decade. “I think the government need to do a proper independent root and branch review of the whole game in England, from grassroots to international rugby,” Johnston said. “You’d create a fairer playing field where the community game is funded.

“We need kids playing rugby. We need the next generation of boys and girls to be rugby fans, not gamers. The money’s just got to be spent in the right areas. Give us a chance because we are that player development platform. We’re treated terribly.”

The RFU has been approached for comment.

In a further twist, however, a last‑ditch bid has been launched behind the scenes to save the Championship’s bottom side, currently London Scottish, from relegation this season. As well as potentially creating a 14-team league in 2023‑24, it would also potentially mean two clubs, rather than three, being relegated from National One this season. With one of those affected National One sides, Esher, due to play their final fixture against the league leaders Rams on Saturday, the RFU Council will debate the motion on Friday.


Exclusive by Robert Kitson

The GuardianTramp

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