RFU chief Bill Sweeney warns rugby landscape could emerge dramatically altered

The shape of international rugby union could be dramatically altered by the coronavirus crisis, with RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney expecting the sport to emerge with “a blank sheet of paper”.

England have extended the contract of head coach Eddie Jones until the end of the 2023 World Cup, a two-year increase on his existing deal, but on almost every other issue there is a profound uncertainty.

The finances of grassroots, professional and even international teams are likely to be stretched to breaking point by the lengthy pause caused by the pandemic and Sweeney admitted the situation might be showing up some harsh realities about the basic infrastructure of the game at large.

And when things return to a form of normality, there is a chance of considerable changes to the status quo.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Bill Sweeney is leading the RFU’s response to the current lay-off (Nick Ansell/PA)</figcaption>
Bill Sweeney is leading the RFU’s response to the current lay-off (Nick Ansell/PA)

“What’s come out of this is an agreement between all the unions – north and south (hemisphere) and World Rugby to really start with a blank sheet of paper,” said Sweeney.

“When you have a crisis of this nature and scale – and I don’t think anybody could have predicted anything of this magnitude – it does highlight where you have fault lines and it does highlight where you can have some weaknesses. Some of those are being exposed now.

“A lot of conversations now are around ‘how do we come out of this and emerge stronger?’. We don’t want to just come back in and carry on with the same model, that just repeats the errors and the difficulties of the past, so there’s a lot of really positive, productive conversations about how do we come out of this with rugby union in a better place, both domestically and also internationally.

It does highlight where you have fault lines and it does highlight where you can have some weaknesses. Some of those are being exposed now

“There’s a whole list of things that we need to be looking at and working more closely together so that we can all realise the benefit. Those conversations have already kicked off and they kicked off fairly quickly.”

The exact details of those talks remain unknown, possibly to be determined by the length of the hiatus and its eventual impact.

A more immediate issue surrounds England’s next planned assignment, a Test tour of Japan in July. With the Tokyo Olympics already pushed back a year it seems highly unlikely that it will go ahead, with Sweeney revealing a final decision would be settled by the end of the month.

“I wouldn’t say absolutely the tours are off. We’ve set ourselves a deadline, with World Rugby, for the end of April to make a decision on that one,” he said.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>England are due to tour Japan in July (Ashley Western/PA)</figcaption>
England are due to tour Japan in July (Ashley Western/PA)

“You’d probably say (postponement) is a strong possibility but it’s slightly different to the Olympics. With the Olympics you’ve got, say, 11,000 athletes coming into Tokyo and different parts of the world at different stages in the crisis.

“With a tour you’ve got two countries involved so it’s a bit more dependent on the state of Japan and the state of England. But these are exceptional times and there are God knows how many contingency plans should the July tours be off.

“It would be premature to say there are any favourite options among those but there are a number we are looking at.”

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Eddie Jones, who has signed a new contract, has taken a temporary pay cut (Adam Davy/PA)</figcaption>
Eddie Jones, who has signed a new contract, has taken a temporary pay cut (Adam Davy/PA)

Sweeney and his executive team, joined by Jones, have taken pay cuts of 25 per cent in response to anticipated losses of up to £50million at Twickenham, and he went on to explain other cost-cutting measures.

He revealed more than 300 employees had been placed on furlough, with the potential for more to come.

“We’re heavily involved in that furlough programme. We’ve got 540-odd employees, 340 of those are now currently on furlough so that’s 62 per cent of the organisation,” he said.

“We’ll re-evaluate that, probably in a week or two weeks’ time, and that furlough number may go up slightly.”

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