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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Rugby Union - Ex­clu­sive By Kate Rowan

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

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