United Kingdom

‘Posh sports’ row nonsense – RFU boss

The RFU bought its Twickenham headquarters in 1907

Rugby Football Union boss Bill Sweeney says it is “nonsense” to suggest the government prioritised “posh sports” in its £300m winter survival package.

The government’s package, announced on Thursday, is set to give up to £135m to rugby union and £40m to horse racing.

Rugby league figures are among those to have criticised the allocation.

Sweeney said the amount was “the right level” and “very pleasing”, though there are ongoing discussions about the proportion of loans and grants.

Of the £135m provisionally allocated to rugby union, the RFU – which governs the sport in England – is set to receive £44m, Premiership Rugby clubs are expected to get £59m, Championship clubs £9m and community clubs £23m.

By comparison, English rugby league as a whole is set to get £12m, prompting criticism from GMB, the sport’s union.

Peter Davies, GMB senior organiser, accused the Conservative government of failing to honour a promise to reduce regional inequality in the UK.

Davies said: “This is hardly levelling up. The Tories have created a two-tier system that sees their rugby union mates getting a bung of cash, while leaving northern rugby league clubs to die.”

But when asked on Thursday if the government had favoured “more middle-class sports at the expense of more working-class sports”, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told BBC sports editor Dan Roan: “I don’t accept that characterisation at all.”

Sweeney also dismissed the accusations that rugby union had received more because it is a “posh” sport.

“I think it’s nonsense, really,” he told BBC Sport. “There are some very specific criteria why rugby union was perhaps suffering a little bit more than some of the other sports.

“Cricket, obviously, is not in season at the moment, so that’s an obvious one, and there are different circumstances around football compared with rugby.

“It was based very much upon fact-based criteria in terms of why rugby union got that allocation. To say that we’re a posh or Tory-based sport I think is absolute nonsense.

He added that “our clubs are a replication of the different social strata of the country” and that, in the England men’s team, “70% come from a state school background”.

‘It’s not inevitable Six Nations will go behind paywall’

Apart from at selected pilot events, there have been no spectators at professional rugby union in England since March, and none at any matches in the Autumn Nations Cup, currently being hosted by the Six Nations countries.

Sweeney, though, is hopeful of there being crowds at the Six Nations in 2021.

“I am cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to have a reasonable number of fans at Twickenham in February and March and it might be under the auspices of some kind of pilot, some kind of test scheme and those have been mooted before,” he said.

In May, Sweeney warned that the RFU would lose £85m by having to play England’s autumn international matches behind closed doors.

The body’s finances were affected further when England’s scheduled match against the Barbarians on 25 October was cancelled because of coronavirus protocol breaches, which Sweeney said is estimated to have cost “in the region of just over half a million [pounds]”.

Thirteen Barbarians players were charged by the RFU with conduct prejudicial to the interests of the union or the game.

Sweeney said the RFU would be pursuing an “aggressive” commercial strategy to help the organisation through this challenging period, but insisted that the Six Nations moving to pay-TV “isn’t inevitable”.

The BBC and ITV hold joint rights until the end of the 2021 tournament, but it could move to a subscription broadcaster from 2022.

“We’re very conscious that there are two sides to this,” Sweeney said.

“One is the need to have the most revenue-generating option we can, in terms of broadcast rights and where they go to, but at the same time we are very conscious that we want to keep awareness levels up, and spectator viewership figures up, so it will be a balance of the two.

“It would be wrong to say it’s inevitable that the Six Nations will definitely go behind a paywall but we’ll look at all the options and make sure we come up with a balanced outcome.”

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