MPs have debated the future of professional rugby in the West Midlands during a debate arranged by Worcester MP Robin Walker.
During the debate Robin said:
Mr Speaker I am very grateful for the opportunity to debate government support for professional rugby in the West Midlands.
Last year I secured what was almost certainly the most closely watched adjournment debate I will ever have to raise concerns about the dire situation at the Worcester Warriors Rugby Club and to ask Ministers to intervene.
I do not propose to detain the house by repeating all the points I made in that debate about the huge value of the club to the community I represent, its passionate following and the role it has played in bringing families and generations together, but all of that remains as true today as it was then.
The difference now is that we do not currently have a professional men’s rugby team in Worcester and that is a matter of great concern to me and to thousands of my Worcester constituents.
I remain as determined as ever to bring back professional elite rugby at Sixways and to see the Worcester Warriors name back at the forefront of rugby union in this country.
Along with the Warriors we have now seen more of the greatest names in English rugby union enter administration – the Wasps and London Irish and in the context of this debate it is worth noting that we have gone from a situation in which the West Midlands had a choice of two teams in the rugby premiership to one in which it has none.
The only remaining professional side in the West Midlands in men’s rugby union is Coventry in the Championship – a league whose sustainability is being questioned almost daily.
This is not to say that Rugby or even professional rugby is dead in Worcester. It is worth celebrating the ongoing success of the Warriors women’s team and the remarkable band of local businesses and supporters who have come together to keep them going. It is fantastic that the Warrior’s women remain in the top flight of women’s rugby – the Allianz premier 15s and their victories over the DMP Sharks, Loughborough Lightning and the draw against Harlequins attest to the fact this remains a brilliantly competitive team. I am hugely grateful to Cube International, EBC, Adam Hewitt and others who have made this possible through their sponsorship and to the brilliant Jo Yapp and Josh Payne who held things together amidst the most difficult circumstances to ensure the team could first return to the competition in November last year and then secure its place for next season. I congratulate the whole team on the example of resilience and true Warriors spirit they have shown.
That we had a stadium for them to play in and that this team and the men’s team had survived the pandemic at all is partly thanks to the vital support that the Government provided to get sport in general and rugby union in particular through the pandemic. In talking about Government support for professional sports it is worth noting that without the £600m sports survival package overseen by the DCMS few rugby clubs could have survived that generational challenge. Nevertheless we must acknowledge that in its aftermath there remain significant challenges to overcome.
I do not have time in a short adjournment debate to run through the saga of mismanagement and the journey to administration that we have been through, nor to go into the detail of the very different situation with the same end result at Wasps.
But what is clear is that the financial model of professional rugby union is going through a period of profound challenge and it is vital that the regulators of the sport show that they recognise the extent of this and take action to address it.
I welcome the commitment that the RFU made in the aftermath of Warriors and then Wasps going into administration to keep both academies going and to run them as two different streams going forward. The Warriors academy is a really important organisation with a fantastic track record of producing international players and some valuable links in local education – which I have spoken about in a number of debates. To be sustainable in the long run though it needs a professional club to feed into.
I recognise the pressures on the RFU to treat clubs equally and to stand by the precedents they have previously set but I am deeply concerned that their decision in the case of both the Warriors and the Wasps that the only way back into professional rugby is to go all the way down to the bottom of the amateur pyramid is self-defeating. It risks removing the prospect of professional rugby from large areas of the country, most notably the West Midlands, and disincentiving investment which is vital to meet their ambition of growing the game.
Investors who are keen to make a commitment to professional rugby are likely to be deterred by such a long journey to get there and it seems bizarre that in rugby union, unlike in almost any other sport or sector of the economy, new investors who want to take a business out of administration are treated in the same way as related parties to those who took it in. I do query the logic of the RFU’s position that any club that goes into administration should henceforward be treated as a phoenix.
Most of us with experience of the business world would understand a phoenix situation to apply when and only when the former owners of a business or related parties to them seek to bring a business out of administration but the current RFU guidelines require any new investor, even when they have no relation to the previous ones, to spend a long period in special measures and with extra supervision.
I think a level playing field for supervision and greater transparency with the regulator is absolutely right in professional rugby and the saga of the Warriors under previous ownership very much demonstrates the need for this but I worry that in creating extra hurdles for new investors to take a club forward and provide the investment to keep a club in professional rugby, the RFU is shooting itself in the foot when it comes to the sustainability of the professional game.
The requirement to go all the way down to the bottom of the amateur pyramid has resulted in the loss of some great names from professional top flight rugby before, but never before has it denuded a whole region of its premiership representation, with both Wasps and Worcester out of the top flight we face exactly that.
In the case of Worcester there is an additional challenge in that we have a strong and well established amateur rugby side that split from the Warriors when they went professional. The Worcester Rugby Football Club, first established in 1871 is alive and well and flourishing at their Offerton Lane home, just up the road from Sixways, but they have no desire to compete for players with any Warriors side on its way back up the pyramid and whilst they constantly show goodwill to efforts to being professional rugby back to Sixways – they would understandably be concerned about any route to do so that put them directly in competition with another local team going up the leagues.
The consequences of losing professional men’s rugby union in a community like Worcester are severe. There has been the loss of jobs to players and staff alike who moved heaven and earth to keep the show on the road during the last season but through no fault of their own have been unable to return to work. There has been the loss of income to the excellent Warriors Community Foundation who have recently had to announce their departure from Sixways and their decision to move to a more costly city centre location. There are fans of the professional game having to travel far further to watch rugby whether it is down the motorway to Gloucester or across to Coventry. Fans are united in saying they want the Warriors back and MPs, councils and local businesses have all come together in stating their ambition to see professional elite rugby return to Sixways as soon as possible.
Recently at a meeting held at Offerton lane, Worcester Warriors fans to set up a supporters trust with a view to bringing back professional rugby as swiftly as possible. Supporters trusts have played a crucial role in getting many football clubs back into contention with Wimbledon and Wrexham being some notable examples and many supporters of the Worcester Warriors are keen to see what can be done to use this model in rugby. The new owners of the club and the stadium, Atlas have themselves stated that they want to see fan ownership play an increased role in the future of the club and I would strong urge Atlas, to sit down with the newly formed supporters trust and see how they can work together to achieve this. I hope the Minister will consider, if a supporters’ trust can get a share of ownership at a club such as the Warriors, how Government could support them.
Now it is fair to acknowledge that there has been much concern about the plans of the new owners and understandably fans who underwent a deeply traumatic period in the run up to and during the club’s administration want more transparency from the new owners as to their future plans for the stadium and their club.
There has been much debate and scepticism about proposals for a rebrand or to take over another local club and bring it to Worcester. For my part I am clear that we need to see the Worcester Warriors brand maintained and fans made this abundantly clear to the new owners at the forum they held in February. At the time they did seem to have listened and I hope shortly they will be more forthcoming about what their plans are for building back up to professional rugby in the shortest possible timescale. There have been suggestions of touring sides or demonstration matches, rumours of concerts and other public events but fans need clarity and they need it soon.
I would remind the new owners and indeed any prospective investor in Sixways of the clear statement by councils, MPs and key supporters of the club that the only way development will be approved at or around Sixways will be if it benefits the professional elite sport and the community.
But for any investor to put money into rugby there needs to be clarity about the proposition and right now there does not seem to be that clarity. With three premiership sides already lost to administration and widespread concerns about the viability of the championship there is deep concern about the very future of professional rugby in England.
To attract new funding investors in rugby need clarity over the future league structure after a period of turmoil and that this clarity is needed as soon as possible in order to attract the long-term investment that the game needs. What can the Minister do to ensure that we get that clarity as soon as possible?
I know that the Minister will say it is not his job to run the sport and that the RFU and PRL have between them this responsibility but they need to move swiftly to provide much needed clarity, to show how investors can bring teams into professional rugby and make it sustainable and to ensure that there is a footprint for professional rugby across all areas of the country where it has support. In Worcester there are thousands of supporters and between them the Wasps and the Warriors had tens of thousands of supporters. The game cannot afford to lose these.
If the RFU does not act fast to provide a route that enables these supporters to get their game back and to get their teams back to the top flight then I do not believe Ministers can stand back.
I had previously been approached by Worcester City Council with the proposal of adding rugby union to the fan led review of football. I rejected this proposition at the time as I believe the two sports are fundamentally different and they face very different challenges. The challenge facing the top flight of football has too often been too much money and the distance that creates with the fans. The challenge facing rugby union has been too little money and unsustainable finances. I do think however that the game of rugby union would benefit from its own fan led review and having discussed this with my neighbour and honourable friend for Mid Worcestershire, the Ministers’ predecessor in his role, I know that he has come to the same conclusion.
I know the Minister has already given a great deal of his time and effort to addressing the future of rugby union in general and the situation of the Warriors in particular. I know I have no need remind the minister of his commitment to try to ensure a positive outcome for the rugby offering in Worcester & of my commitment both as MP for Worcester and as a personal friend of the Duckworths to secure the legacy of elite professional rugby that he left for the city.
I hope the Minister can use his influence with the RFU to make clear to them that the current situation is not tolerable. The loss of much loved, well supported local sides, the jobs, the investment and the pride they bring to a community as well as the inspiration and opportunities they bring to young people is not something that should be treated as par for the course and the DCMS, RFU and PRL need to work with investors to ensure there is a future for the Warriors and for professional rugby in the West Midlands.
When we debated the situation a year ago it seemed administration was route to keeping the club and its assets together, attracting new investment and supporting a return to the top-flight. Today there is a very real risk of no top-flight team in Worcester or anywhere in the West Midlands for many years to come. After millions of pounds of taxpayers money have already been invested to support the sustainability of the sport, this is not an acceptable outcome.