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Bill Sweeney reflects on ‘the most challenging time in my career’ as RFU chief talks coronavirus

Reflecting on the past few months as CEO of English rugby, Bill Sweeney reels off a gloomy sequence of events. From the Saracens salary cap breaches, to the Myners report, to Championship funding cuts, to lockdown, to a multi-million-pound backlog of fixtures. The list goes on.

‘It’s been full-on,’ he said. ‘Non-stop. You look back to the end of January and think, “Jeez, it feels like it’s been about two or three years”.’

But the most testing time for him has been the past seven days. Budgets have been squeezed and he spent Monday making more than 100 redundancies in the community game via video call.

Rugby’s administrators usually keep out of the spotlight but Sweeney’s profile has been a regular feature across newspapers, alongside headlines that his cuts could kill the game.

‘It’s probably been the most challenging time in my career,’ added Sweeney, whose CV includes companies from Shell to the British Olympic Association. ‘When I was MD at Reebok, I was transferred to run a subsidiary operation in the US that was underperforming badly. At the end of that year we ended up making 250 people redundant. That was difficult but that was down to poor previous management.

‘This is different. You’ve got 141 positions identified as being redundant but you’re seeing some really good people leave the organisation who haven’t done anything wrong. You’re dealing with their families and they’ve got to go out into a challenging environment. Anyone who says that doesn’t affect them in some way is not telling the truth.

‘One of the learnings over the last 16 months is that the community game is the lifeblood of the sport. People will say, “How can you possibly say that when you’ve gone into the level of redundancies in the community game?”.

‘If you go back to 2003 as a benchmark, they took a very strategic decision to invest in the elite side of the game. The thinking was that if you have a really strong elite side then that’s a shop window to inspire. But if you don’t support your grassroots game it’s a really dangerous approach to take. They are the bedrock. The community game is our priority.

‘We’ve got to restructure how we do things. Some of the learnings that have come out of Covid are that there are ways now in terms of technology that allow us to reach a much wider group of people more effectively and efficiently. We’ve got to change our ways of working.

‘The structure has been there for quite some time and we felt that in order to be directly prepared for the new landscape, we couldn’t just make incremental changes and make a flat percentage reduction across the whole organisation. It just didn’t work that way.

‘Had we done that for the community game — community coaches and regional development officers — then you wouldn’t end up with a sustainable structure. You couldn’t just shrink it, you had to totally remodel it. That’s what we’ve done and that’s what’s resulted in the number of redundancies we’ve got on the community side. It’s been tough.’

With rugby’s revenue streams wiped out, the RFU is set to lose around £107million in revenue over the next 12 months. The community game has been hit the hardest with six development regions expected to be cut to four. Yesterday the green light was given for community rugby to return to staged training — with clubs desperate to start generating revenues through clubhouses.

‘It’s about what we think will sustain the game and give us the best chance of emerging from this,’ said Sweeney. ‘Covid is not a short-term thing. With the flaring-up of infection rates and regional lockdowns, this thing has still got a few twists and turns in it. It was never going to be a 12-month bump in the road. From a financial perspective, I think it will take about four years to bounce back.’

The Premiership’s return on Friday will provide a timely boost. However, the strained relationship between club and country has been exposed during the lockdown. Rugby is battling to broaden its markets but growth is too often hamstrung by politics and self-interest. Sweeney wants to see a new global playing calendar with a two-month autumn window for Test matches. The clubs accept change is necessary but club and country cannot reach an agreement.

‘Rugby’s a funny sport, isn’t it?’ said Sweeney. ‘You’ve got to go back to 1995, when the game went professional, to see the rifts emerge between the club and the country.

‘Globally, rugby is an underperforming sport. It should be bigger and it should be more commercially successful. It should be growing around the world and Covid has exposed some of the challenges.

‘Rugby’s unique. There are a lot of fans who will watch international games but won’t follow a club. That’s the power of the Six Nations or the World Cup. You’ve got a core group of elite players who play at the highest level for their clubs and their country.

‘If you take a typical domestic club season, that’s 24 games through to the final. If you get through the final of the European Cup and play every round, that’s another nine games. That’s 33 games excluding the Premiership Cup. If you then add on 11 international games, that takes you up to 44 games in a year.

‘By the very physical nature of rugby and its need for rest and recuperation, you’d need a year of 65 to 70 weeks for an Owen Farrell to play every game. You can’t physically do it. The game needs to figure out, consolidate and collaborate about the domestic league structure, the regional cup and the international game.

‘The game also has to understand that we must drive more value through fewer games. You can’t add more games. There’s a lot of fixed mindset, a lot of history, a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of mistrust across different stakeholders but we’re trying to bring them together.

‘There is a solution which results in a much more coherent club and international calendar. The name of the game here is how do you grow the pie for the entire sport? Then we can collaborate together and compete against other sports, not compete against each other.

‘One of the interesting things is the emergence of private equity coming into the game: the deal CVC have done at Pro 14, the 27 per cent ownership of PRL and the ongoing negotiations we’re having with them around Six Nations.

‘Look at the Formula One model… sometimes you need an external third party to bring together a fragmented bunch of stakeholders and give you a common purpose around value creation.

‘Then you can discard all the previous history and stuff and say, “Right, how do we figure this out so we make this work in the best interests of everybody?”. I’m convinced once we get through this Covid situation that we’ll come together in a more productive, meaningful way. The growing relationship between the northern and southern hemisphere is a positive thing. Rugby should be a bigger sport globally and domestically.’

As part of his bid to become World Rugby chairman, Agustin Pichot proposed setting up an innovation department to help the sport tap into new audiences. Sweeney accepts that change is necessary and, having watched sailing’s America’s Cup, he believes there are vast improvements to be made in the television experience. His ideas include the possibility of putting microphones on players and coaches at Twickenham.

‘There’s a lot of talk around what are possible law changes: how do you make the game faster? How do you increase fatigue? Reductions in the number of substitutions?’ said Sweeney.

‘Sports have been improved through digital content and I think rugby is ripe for that. There’s a huge amount of data in terms of player performance during matches. There’s ways of showing how moves are generated and ways of predicting how the game might be going forward.’

Sweeney says the America’s Cup in San Francisco revolutionised things. ‘It used to be difficult for a non-sailor to grasp,’ he says. ‘You would see the two boats going off in different directions and you didn’t know who was leading.

‘So, they brought in the guy who did the digital overlays for the NFL. After that, you could track in real-time who was really leading. You could see wind direction and speeds and there were microphones on the boat so you could listen to the tactics of the crews. It really transformed the fan experience. I think there are similar things you can do with rugby.’

Would he be open to putting a microphone on England head coach Eddie Jones in the coaching box?

‘You might not be able to publish most of it, but it might make interesting listening at home,’ he said. ‘Passions can run quite high. You’d have to monitor it carefully.

‘Maybe you have instant editing so you can block out anything that’s not appropriate. In Formula One, you see microphones inside the cockpit of the cars to give a greater level of accessibility.

‘We’ve got it with referees already. If you look at the laws in rugby, how many people really understand what’s going on in the scrum? I can imagine a situation where you’re sitting watching a game and you may have a small screen, a bit like the TMO room, where you get an explanation in your mic which is saying why that scrum went down.

‘You’ve got to be really open- minded here. We’ve got to make sure that we appeal to a younger fan base all the time. We’ve got to make sure the game is exciting.

‘If you’re a broadcaster and you want to invest in a rugby channel, you could have something that really showcases the sport in the best possible way. But again, no one is going to invest in that until the game can actually sort itself out in working together.’

The struggles between club and country will continue into the autumn Tests. The overloaded calendar means there will be fixture clashes as England return for the ‘Eight Nations’ competition. Sweeney is hopeful there will be significant crowds at the fixtures.

‘We’d like to see about 30,000 fans in those November internationals,’ he said. ‘We’re in regular dialogue with the authorities about social distancing. We may have to communicate to fans in a much bigger way and maybe not rely on trains to get into Twickenham.’

It will be the first time Jones has had his squad together since March and Sweeney said the group will go into a strict bubble.

‘Eddie’s a real student of everything,’ said Sweeney. ‘He studies this stuff no end. He’s looked at what’s happened in the southern hemisphere. He’s got views in terms of how you look after the players and how you make sure they’re in the best possible shape.

‘It’s quite easy to do the bubble for the players because the international game can afford the testing protocols. A place like Pennyhill Park or the Lensbury is quite easy to shut down.’

The pulling power of international rugby — plus 30,000 fans at Twickenham — will provide much-needed funds to the RFU’s accounts. However, the elite end of the game is braced for cuts. Jones is set to lose 12 per cent of his staff and negotiations are ongoing about a major cut in players’ matchday fees.

The RFU also announced yesterday that the England Rugby sevens men’s and women’s players would not have their contracts renewed.

‘You’ve got two sides of the beating heart of the RFU,’ said Sweeney. ‘You’ve got the performance side and you’ve got the community side. The men’s team in particular drives a massive percentage of the revenue which we then take and invest back into the community game so you can’t unbalance that relationship.

‘Everyone’s taking pain and feeling hardship. Eddie’s taken a pay cut. We’ve had executive cuts. We’ve had bonuses cancelled. The players are not daft and they understand the situation. You read the papers today you can see that it’s not as if we’ve got a ton of money sloshing around. The whole game is having to realise that these are totally exceptional circumstances.’

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