Tuesday 18th February 2020

Is the RFU becoming a governing body for just the few?

Dear fellow rugby supporter

Having had the opportunity to digest what actually happened last week after receiving the letter from Bill Sweeney on Tuesday, I used my time on Sunday to do a trawl of the media, in an attempt to gain a better understanding of how the rugby community had reacted to the news of the RFU funding cuts to the Greene King IPA Championship.

In truth, I was overwhelmed. The majority of media coverage was extremally supportive, but it was the views of those from the grassroot rugby community, including those in the national leagues, that I found most inspiring. Yes, there was also positive support from those around the ‘elite game’, but it was the players, volunteers and supporters from ‘everyday rugby’ that caught my eye; and this is why I thought I had better share my latest views more widely.

All rugby clubs at some point in their life will need some support and Nottingham Rugby have not been immune to this. I have been at Nottingham now for 13 years and have seen us fighting legal battles down at Meadow Lane and having to save the club when our last owners came into financial difficulties back in 2014.

At that time, I decided that I would not let Nottingham Rugby fall from grace again and embarked upon getting Nottingham back on its feet, operating a sustainable model down at The Bay alongside our partner club on site, Nottingham Corsairs. At no time did I think that this would be easy. However, I did not expect our own governing body to pull the rug from underneath us!

I was one of those people in the room at Twickenham last Tuesday when Bill Sweeney delivered his ‘killer’ blow. Yes, the removal of 50% of our funding was devastating, but the real anger was borne through the manner that it was done. He sat there, cold, stone-faced and delivered his presentation, trying to justify the cuts on his obviously flawed reasons.

It felt like I was being made redundant and then being asked to watch a presentation on why I was being made redundant. Yes, I was angry, and emotions were running high, however, during the couple of hours that he was with us, I witnessed no emotion from Bill whatsoever and to me, it was obvious that this decision had been made many months ago. I do not particularly blame Conor O’Shea, as he has just arrived at the RFU and in truth probably knows very little on how the Championship clubs operate, or what benefits we deliver to the game of rugby. 

Having now listened and read Bill’s further press statements, my opinion has not changed. In fact, I see someone who comes over very uncaring, particularly for a man in his position as CEO of OUR governing body. His explanation about the rationale for the cuts being that the Championship clubs had failed to meet “a set of objectives and deliverables”, is nothing more than a smokescreen and is in fact a diversion tactic to align himself and the RFU more with ‘Elite’ Rugby and the recent CVC investment.

Before he continues wielding the axe any further, perhaps Bill should examine what value the RFU have been getting from their £228m investment into PRL since 2016. In fact, it was only 18 months ago that funding in the community game was cut by 10% and this was explained as a cost saving exercise. Yet, just last week, Bill stated that the RFU financials “were now in a good place’’.

Nottingham, like many Championship clubs, still operates at a loss – albeit a much smaller one now. I, like I am sure every other shareholder throughout the game, invests personal money not to generate a return, but because I love the game and want to see rugby thrive, at every level. Only last month one of my businesses provided a donation to Melbourne Rugby Club to assist their junior teams on their annual rugby tour this coming April. Without financial support, no rugby club would exist, and we all need each other to survive.

Since Nottingham moved back to The Bay, the professional club infrastructure that we have developed and are continuing to develop, has helped Nottingham Corsairs amateur club. The amateur club benefits by running the clubhouse bar on our match days and we work together to ensure the best possible facility is available for players of all age and ability. I am sure many, if not all other clubs operate in a similar way. Without RFU financial support in the community game, this simply would not happen.

Like many others, Nottingham work closely with other local clubs and our constituent body. We host county finals days here at The Bay, including the recently announced junior events from u12s to u16s and we have started linking to a growing game in local state schools, hosting a new annual festival. Much media coverage has been made of local community outreach programmes, Nottingham’s stretches across the county and further afield, with our coaches helping children get exposure to the game of rugby from an age as early as just two or three; and our grounds team have assisted local clubs with preparing and maintaining their own pitches and facilities.

Local engagement also stretches to our partnership with Nottingham Trent University, where the rugby programme has enabled NTU to develop their rugby offer and be competitive at the top tier of the British Universities and Colleges Sports (BUCS) competition. It has also enabled their players to experience Championship league and cup rugby on a regular basis with Nottingham. I am aware of other Championship and National League clubs that have similar initiatives through Higher and Further Education.

And, just last week, one of our coaches and a fellow player, were called up to represent England U20s – I was under the impression from Bill that this pathway was failing?

Over the next few weeks, Nottingham Rugby along with the other Championship Clubs, will be investigating our options for the future, but for now, we should not forget where we have come from and the importance of grassroots rugby as a whole. Rugby starts and finishes in our local communities and relies on thousands of coaches, supporters, volunteers and staff to ensure the game is enjoyed by so many.

I have seen nothing over the last few days from anyone in the RFU acknowledging this. It has all been about “value for money”, or “return on investment”. What about the RFU’s responsibility for the game, for the players, the coaches, the supporters, the rugby community!?

I am sure this ‘corporate social responsibility’ already extends beyond the RFU, where those who invest in the game, do so, not for a return on investment, but in order to satisfy a personal or organisational obligation. They contribute because they care, about children playing, adults volunteering, a community thriving.

Rugby does not start with the elite. In fact, it starts in our schools and our local clubs. Is it not time that the RFU acknowledge this and remind themselves that the ‘RFU is not for the Few’?

Without community clubs and the National Leagues, the Championship would not survive and more importantly, neither would Twickenham. It’s the people in these clubs that support rugby, it’s these people that fill the stadium during internationals. Bill Sweeney may well need reminding of this when England host Ireland at the weekend.

I will be one of the thousands lucky enough to be there on Sunday, cheering on England and helping prop up the RFU coffers, but in truth, it will be all the people that support rugby in the community that I will be thinking of – that’s where rugby really begins. I will be showing my support and I hope the rest of the rugby community will too.

Before I head to Twickenham, I will be at The Bay, where Nottingham Rugby host Doncaster Knights on Friday in the cup. I will be leading the charge and showing our ‘supporters’ that we have not forgotten about them. At half-time, we will be standing and carrying out a two minutes applause, thanking everyone involved in rugby for keeping the game alive. Supporters, players, coaches, volunteers and the rest of the rugby community should not be forgotten, regardless of what club, or league we play in.

I urge all clubs to support this and I am aware that many other championship and national league clubs have already given their backing. So, please show your support at the weekend, regardless of when and what time you are playing, take a picture, share on social media and lets’ show that rugby is for the many and not the few.


Yours sincerely

Alistair Bow

Chairman, Nottingham Rugby