Bill Sweeney, chief executive of the Rugby Football Union

Bill Sweeney: RFU chief executive says game ‘on cusp of something quite spectacular’

Bill Sweeney, chief executive of the Rugby Football UnionBill Sweeney said about 25 England players could be signed to “hybrid contracts”, giving England coach Steve Borthwick greater control over his players

Rugby Football Union chief executive Bill Sweeney says the game is “on the cusp of something quite spectacular” as it attempts to rebuild after a turbulent period.

Four professional clubs in England have gone bust in the past year – Wasps, Worcester, London Irish and Jersey Reds – while the RFU has also faced a rebellion from the grassroots over the tackle height and its managing of finances.

Sweeney was accused of being “completely asleep on the job” at a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee hearing last year, and told he should consider resigning after Wasps and Worcester went under.

But Sweeney insists he has “the energy and passion” to lead a recovery.

“I came into this role because I am passionate about this game. I do believe we are on the cusp of something quite spectacular here.

“This has been a unique moment in time because of the financial challenges, because of the working relationship with PRL [Premiership Rugby] and our ability to change that relationship over the partnership, to fix the things that have stopped us winning Six Nations Championships on a regular basis, to have more consistently performing England teams.

“The work we are doing with World Rugby around the Nations Cup and the global calendar, that all plays into this as well. And I still feel I have the energy, the passion and the desire to see it through.”

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However, Sweeney admitted the system “has to change” if clubs are to become more sustainable and England teams are to perform on a consistent basis.

“We have won four Six Nations Championships in 20 years and one World Cup, and that is not what you would expect from us,” he continued.

“Regardless of where we end up in this World Cup, the system has to change. That takes us on to the Professional Game Partnership.

“Throughout that period we have had successive management teams in place, and the main, critical, fundamental issues have not been addressed. That is what we are really focused on doing.

“This is a unique moment, and an opportunity in time to get that done, in collaboration with the professional game.

“I don’t know how many CEOs we have had in the RFU since 2003. I’m not sure if any head coach has left willingly, every head coach in that period has been fired. You compare that to, say, the Irish model or the New Zealand model, and it’s entirely different. There is a continuity and a stability.”

In a lengthy briefing, Sweeney added:

  • About 25 England players will be signed up to “hybrid contracts”, designed to give England boss Steve Borthwick greater control over his players.
  • The establishment of a “One Entity” approach to running the professional game in England, with a beefed-up “Professional Rugby Board” replacing the existing Professional Game Board, featuring figures from the RFU, clubs and independents with an independent chair.
  • The RFU is committed to the new “tackle height” law at community level, but he admitted failings over the communication of the strategy.
  • The Covid pandemic “brutally exposed flaws” in any business models. However, Sweeney said it was not the RFU’s role to “prop up failing businesses” like Wasps, Worcester and London Irish.
  • The disaster of clubs going bust has led to better financial modelling and checks and balances.
  • The RFU received no warnings about the financial plight of Championship club Jersey Reds, who filed for administration last week.
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