Championship Rugby funding cuts disastrous for English Rugby

PENZANCE, ENGLAND - JANUARY 12: General view as a Cornish Pirates flag flies inside the stadium prior to kick off during the Greene King IPA Championship match between Cornish Pirates and Yorkshire Carnegie at Mennaye Field on January 12, 2020 in Penzance, England. (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

The RFU has announced that there will be Championship Rugby funding cuts starting as early as the 2020/21 season. Clubs will receive around half the amount they currently do, down to approximately £4.3m from £8.06m.

What will the impact of this be?

Current state of the Championship

If, as expected, Newcastle Falcons win promotion this season, it will be the fourth season in a row that the relegated team has been promoted straight back. This will become five when Saracens inevitably return to the Premiership next season.

It could also be the third season in a row that Ealing Trailfinders are the closest challengers for top spot. The relegation spot also seems to be decided already, with Yorkshire Carnegie on the end of several 50+ point hammerings.

This clearly is not an optimal situation. But it is it really time to just give up on the league altogether?

The Exeter argument

The first counter argument against ring-fencing, or reduced Championship support, will inevitably be to cite the Exeter Chiefs success story. It is of course a brilliant case study of how a team can rise from the Championship to the Premiership and thrive.

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However, it also represents a relative failure of this pathway. Worcester Warriors are really the only other club who have become established in the Premiership in the professional era. Even then, they have often flirted with relegation rather than progressing up the table.

So on the whole, maybe ring-fencing is the logical conclusion to a mostly closed shop. But a solution of periodic promotion and relegation has been suggested, yet seemingly now rejected.

RFU objectives were impossible to achieve

The RFU has published its reasoning for these cuts. Looking through these in turn, it’s hard to see how these could ever have been met under the current model. So what chance with 50% less funding?

Make steps towards becoming a financially viable league, given the average annual club loss is £260,000

Clearly, cutting each club’s finding by around the same amount as the average loss is not going to help reduce them.

Furthermore, travel support funding will be cut for the Championship Cup. Whilst not the most revered of competitions, if this were to disappear clubs will probably lose fixtures and therefore revenue. Again, losses only likely to increase.

The Championship is an RFU-run tournament, and they hold the commercial rights. Surely then it would be in their interest to support a thriving competition that can then attract sponsorship and TV revenue?

Also quite ironic given the combined losses of the PRL clubs is over £50m.

Develop a league where more clubs have an ambition of winning promotion

In a competitive league with promotion available, there won’t be many clubs without any ambition at all to reach the Premiership. In this case, they had to be realistic given the gap to the next division is already very large. Also, the experience of London Welsh will have checked the ambitions of some by warning of the dangers of over-reaching.

Increase the number of English-qualified players

Having the Championship as a professional league provides opportunities to English players, particularly younger ones, to make a name for themselves when Premiership appearances are not always readily available.

If this high-standard of Rugby is removed, the likelihood of players looking for alternative countries to play in and represent will increase.

It may be that the long-term strategy is to increase funding for Premiership academies, or for University rugby. Now would have been a good time to announce this to soften the blow and make the decision more acceptable.

Develop future England coaches and referees

As with the player pathway, it’s quite disingenuous to claim the Championship has not provided coaches and referees. The likes of Luke Pearce, Matthew Carley and Ian Tempest started out as second division whistle-blowers and are now Premiership (and in some cases international) regulars.

On the coaching side, Rob Baxter may yet become England Head Coach, whilst Jim Mallinder began his Northampton career in the Championship; he later became England’s performance pathway coach.

Develop a community programme to grow the game in the club’s region

In a joint statement released by Coventry and Cornish Pirates, they allege that the RFU has “[not supported] any promotion by Twickenham of the community work which is being done by our clubs, such as wheelchair rugby, suicide prevention, and helping older people with dementia.”

If accurate, that suggests clubs were doing what they could within their constraints. Non-playing activities like this will sadly be one of the first things that would have to be rationalised.

Where next for the Championship?

Understandably, Championship clubs are very unhappy about this. With only around six months until the new season starts, recruitment plans will be in tatters. It might not be possible to even honour current contracts: for players and off-field staff.

As mentioned earlier, some clubs are already in financial trouble. Yorkshire Carnegie were lucky to be competing this season, having had to go semi-pro just to survive. Unfortunately it looks like several other clubs will now have to follow this model.

This announcement means everything will be up in the air for months to come. Will there even be an English second division come September? What would happen to Saracens, who surely couldn’t be reinstated to the Premiership after everything that has happened?  Rumours of a breakaway league out of RFU control, to join the PRO14 or even to create a cross-border league with Welsh clubs are circulating.

Championship Rugby funding cuts disastrous for English Rugby

If the decision remains as it is, it seems Premiership ring-fencing is inevitable once Saracens return to the top table in 2021. It will be very easy to justify this by claiming these newly semi-professional Championship clubs are unable to make the jump to the Premiership.

The best way to increase standards at the top is to improve standards below, to continually raise the bar for everyone. Championship Rugby funding cuts appears to actively want to worsen standards below.

Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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