The English Rugby Union is trying to avoid a crisis on and off the field

England’s rugby union is drawing up restructuring plans aimed at ending conflicts between different levels of the game and averting a crisis both on and off the field.

The Rugby Football Union, which runs the national side, and league organizer Premiership Rugby are in talks to strengthen ties, ensure star players are available to England and clubs as needed, and develop joint marketing and media rights plans.

The initiatives come at a time of financial turmoil in rugby, which saw both one-time European champions Wasps and 152-year-old Worcester Warriors relegated from the Premiership. The gloom has also spread to the national team, as exemplified by England’s record home defeat against France in the Six Nations tournament.

In an interview with the Financial Times, RFU chief Bill Sweeney said the sport was asking itself how to “stop the bleeding” after four “really disturbing” years.

He mentioned the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced the sport to request a financial rescue package from the government.

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“The next phase is the turnaround,” Sweeney said. “We are on the verge of something quite transformative.”

While the details are being worked out, the aim is to improve England’s record on the pitch, equip clubs to retain talent and better compete against overseas rivals and boost grassroots investment. Leaders want to outline the future of the game later this year.

The challenges facing the sport are significant. Another club, London Irish, which warned in its 2021 accounts that there was “material uncertainty” about its ability to continue as a going concern, is calling on prospective investors.

There are signs that the clubs’ financial problems are having an impact on the pitch. Some English players, including former Waps winger Jack Willis, left to play in France.

Sweeney and his Premiership counterpart Simon Massie-Taylor are trying to address the divide in the sport, which is plagued by the competing interests of the national team and the club game.

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“We’re just trying to remove as much conflict as possible from this partnership,” Massie-Taylor said.

Fixture clashes mean that Premiership clubs are often deprived of their best players when those players are selected for England.

In a bid to reduce calendar overlaps, the Premiership is looking at plans to reduce its league to 10 teams. He has already reduced the numbers from 13 last year to 11, following the troubles of Wasps and Worcester.

Fewer matches in a minor league can also improve players’ well-being: medical evidence suggests that international rugby players are at higher risk of neurodegenerative diseases than the general population.

Rugby revenues are healthier nationally, which typically takes precedence over the club game in the eyes of fans and commercial partners. The RFU generated a total of £453m in revenue over the past three financial years, dwarfing the likes of Irish Rugby, which generated €280m over the same period.

However, the fact that the budget is significantly larger than some of its biggest rivals has not meant success on the field for England.

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The RFU sacked national team coach Eddie Jones last year and replaced him with Steve Borthwick, formerly of Leicester Tigers, but the team’s performances have remained sluggish in this year’s Six Nations, in which they finished fourth. In the world rankings, England is in sixth place, behind Scotland.

England head coach Steve Borthwick

Steve Borthwick, the head coach of England, has not yet improved the team’s performance © Lorraine O’sullivan/Reuters

“The money is there, but it’s not being used in the right way,” said one club owner, who declined to be named. “The big problem is that we’re basically competing against it [the RFU] to the players, media and sponsors instead of selling it all together.”

The RFU also pointed to structural differences between England and systems such as Ireland. He added that it was too simplistic to say that “more player resources and money would lead to better performance” and that more emphasis should be placed on “how those resources are managed”.

But Sweeney admitted the RFU’s system for identifying and developing top talent was “not as effective” as in some other nations.

The chief executive also said that funding cuts to youth rugby several years ago had damaged the supply of talent. “We have now rebuilt these roads,” he said.

Despite its difficulties, rugby union continues to attract private capital. CVC Capital Partners, the Luxembourg-based private equity group, acquired a 14 percent stake in Six Nations for £365 million two years ago.

The deal has generated £90m for the RFU, which it will deploy in areas such as the women’s game and digital media, as well as the development of the national stadium at Twickenham.

However, the income gap between national and club level is large. The RFU’s revenue of £189m last year was almost triple Premiership Rugby’s £65m.

In football, by contrast, the English Premier League’s £3bn revenue in the year to the end of July 2022 was nearly six times that of the national governing body, the Football Association.

“What we’re seeing in English rugby is almost the reverse of English football,” said Massie-Taylor. While interest in the international game has been “massive”, “the challenge is how it filters down” to club level, he said.