RFU cuts will starve Sevens game before Tokyo, warn players
England squad told their contracts will not be renewed Doubts over preparation time and funding for Team GB
Leading members of the England Sevens squad say they have been told to find new jobs for up to five months, with their funding due to expire on Aug 31.
On the day the Olympic Games were due to have started, players fear that Rugby Football Union cutbacks will have huge implications for their careers and chances in Tokyo next year.
Their concerns include:
◆ Players having been placed on furlough and told their contracts would not be renewed when they expire at the end of next month
◆ Fears that contracts will be worth much less if they are renewed at the start of next year
◆ Uncertainty over whether they will have enough time to prepare for the Olympics if the Team GB men’s squad is reassembled
◆ Cost-cutting measures already implemented, including backroom staff no longer being provided with lunch when on England duty, and players being told to buy their own energy sweets to save the RFU £300 per year.
England captain, Tom Mitchell, and Rio silver medallist Phil Burgess say they fear for the future of their sport after the sevens programme was hit hard by RFU cuts in the wake of the pandemic.
“We have no job security. We have been advised because of all the uncertainty around sevens, finances and our programme to explore all opportunities,” Burgess told “I understand these things but we are young men and women who have given our bodies, minds, our everything, to play and all we would like is something in return, even if it is just the offer of a goodwill contract, which means that some guys get employment.”
And Burgess, who is looking for a job in management consultancy, admits that fears over the future means he may have to walk away from the sport ahead of what would have been his swansong in Tokyo.
“I have a wife, a child and a mortgage to pay,” he said. “And I am being asked to find a job, keep fit and then ask this job if I can come away for six months to play rugby and then return to the job. In the climate we are in, people are not just giving out jobs, and employers want commitment. Why would anyone take a punt on someone who will be around for a few months and will then be away again?
“It is a difficult situation. I am at a different stage in my career to some of the others – I am towards the end. It beggars belief and it is a horrible place to be for some of the boys.”
Burgess is also concerned that the cuts and enforced absence from training will mean Team GB will struggle to match their achievements in 2016, when the men’s team won the silver medal.
“We don’t know what the programme is going to look like,” he said. “And this is where I believe that the RFU have been slightly short-sighted – if they want us to be
playing next year at any level of sevens, we need to play some rugby. If some of our players are not going to be able to play competitive rugby until next year, how are they supposed to be in the best position to fight for an England or GB shirt?”
Mitchell said: “Four years ago, in the run-up to the Rio Olympics, I was on a runway at the Team GB kit launch standing beside Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill, Tom Daley and the fashion designer, Stella McCartney, who designed our gear for Rio. “We all thought back then that things could only build for sevens. But a year or so later the money started to trickle away from our programme because of the RFU finances and here we are four years on and it feels like Sevens is in a very different place.
“I have felt a lot of frustration and anger towards how the situation has been dealt with by some of the powers that be. But the most powerful emotion is a sense of sadness for what we are potentially losing. Sevens is probably not going to be flourishing in terms of investment for some time. It feels like we are losing a special environment, a programme dedicated to the growth of people as well as athletes.” Unlike other Olympic sports, the Team GB rugby sevens side is comprised mostly of England players, with the setup receiving no UK Sport funding. It is understood the RFU is in talks with UK Sport over funding for Tokyo, as the governing body is considering scrapping its sevens programme in order to save £2million annually.
The hope was that the English, Scottish and Welsh unions would, along with UK Sport, set up a central funding pot for a GB Olympic team, but the Scots resisted as they see the Sevens World Series as crucial in developing young talent. Burgess fears any contracts that are offered will be significantly reduced, with players asked to play for the honour. “I feel for those players who are younger or who missed out on the opportunity to go to Rio,” he said. “[I worry] they are going to be being offered contracts that are reduced financially and the reason they are doing it is they want the draw of the Olympics to be the thing that brings people to play. That is not fair. Rugby is finite; you have to make a career while you can.”
Mitchell believes the squad have paid the price for a reduction in investment that even saw players told to buy their own energy sweets at tournaments.
“It wasn’t a problem, but it shows the extent to which they were trying to find savings,” Mitchell said. “I always say this with a reservation because we have been treated well over the years, but it was getting to a point of frustration because we were having those conversations about not getting sweets and the staff not getting lunches and the staff were taking pay cuts. Many were doing double the amount of work they should have done because they were cutting jobs.”
An RFU spokesperson said: “As a result of Covid-19 we are expecting losses ranging between £73million and £107million this financial year and 20 per cent reductions over the next four to five years.
“To ensure we have a sustainable RFU we [propose] to reduce the number of roles across the organisation. We have also advised our Rugby Sevens men’s and women’s players that we may not be able to renew their contracts when they expire over the summer and are in discussion with UK Sport and World Rugby about this. We are now in a period of consultation with colleagues.
“The RFU executive team are continuing to take voluntary pay reductions. Our loss in revenues mean we are having to make difficult decisions on what we can continue to invest in.
“We have approached UK Sport for funding and are exploring the option for a Team GB Sevens team, we are also in dialogue with World Rugby about the programme for the World Sevens Series and when games are likely to be played.
“With no support in funding we don’t believe we can sustain the team in its current format, which means we may have to look at different ways of contracting sevens players and staff.”
‘We are young men and women who have given our all and we would like something back’
Uncertain futures: Rio silver medallists Tom Mitchell (left) and Phil Burgess