English rugby chiefs have been accused by MPs of overseeing “a failure on an epic scale” following the demise of Wasps and Worcester Warriors who have both entered administration with massive debts.
Bill Sweeney OBE, chief executive, Rugby Football Union and Simon Massie-Taylor, chief executive, Premiership Rugby Limited appeared before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee today and faced stiff questioning about their parts in the “shambles” that has unfolded this season and reduced the Gallagher Premiership from 13 to 11 teams during the season.
Leading the widespread criticism was committee chair Julian Knight MP who told Massie-Taylor: “I have never come across anything as shambolic, lack of care and lack of thought towards people in your own game in my entire time as a select committee member.”
The committee chairman then accused Sweeney of being “asleep on the job” in checking the credentials of discredited Worcester owners Colin Goldring and Jason Whittingham. Sweeney replied “I don’t accept that.”
Knight said: “How much financial support has the RFU given to support and players and staff (at Worcester and Wasps)?”
Sweeney: “We don’t have the funds of financial support in that situation.”
Knight: “so diddly squat basically.
“You frankly have failed in this instance and so has the RFU should you not be looking at your own positions?”
The sharp exchange continued with a clearly frustrated Knight addressing Sweeney stating: “It looks to be as if you are living in isolation in some ivory tower without any intonation about what was going on. You are allowing someone (Goldring) who you later discover to have been banned by a major institution (SRA) to retain ownership of a rugby club and then you are not even banning them after they have driven it into the ground.
“How did you allow a liar and asset stripper to destroy a community club?”
Sweeney replied that the owners had gone through a fit and proper test in 2018 and passed but accepted there was currently no ongoing monitoring system and that this was one of the recommendations from “this sorry episode” adding: “They certainly wouldn’t get through a fit and proper test now.”
Knight hit back: “So you lived in isolation while watching other clubs in other sports go under due to similar circumstances as Worcester and you were asleep on the job and so was your board.
“You are paid to ensure your clubs survive. Why have you failed in that? “
Sweeney defended the RFU against accusations from former CEO Francis Baron that he had run up huge debts insisting the next set of accounts that would be revealed shortly showed the Union was debt free. Sweeney said: “We have £126m in reserve including £90m from the CVC money and we are currently debt free. We expected to make £8m profit this year but we are going to break even. Our utility bills have increased from £2.2m to £7.5m”
Carol Hart, chief executive, Worcester Warriors Foundation, gave evidence at a earlier sitting and accused English rugby chiefs of failing in their duties to look after the sport telling the committee “The governing bodies were sleep walking through this entire nightmare and still do.”
She also revealed that a loss of the “P” share which could be bought back from Worcester by Premiership Rugby after administration would remove £70,000 of central funding for the Foundation. She insisted that heads of department at the club had voiced concerns over the owners for two years before the crisis came to a head. She also told the committee a total of 400 people were directly involved by the ramifications of administration at the club. Sweeney denied the RFU had been warned and promised to investigate this matter.
Local MP Robin Walker highlighted that Worcester had not had a finance director in place for the last two years and that fact “told a story” about the attitude of the owners. He also agreed with the committee chairman, that there had been “a failure of governance” of the sport.
MPs also took the Rugby Players Association to task over their ability to help those affected at Wasps and Worcester as the players’ organization “had not be fit for purpose” to handle the ramifications of two clubs entering administration.
Knight said in his view that Wasps and Worcester had been left to “twist in the wind” and that the demise of both clubs would be the subject of a special report by the committee as the situation would be “laughable” if it wasn’t so tragic. He said: “I’m going to write to the Serious Fraud Office concerning Mr Colin Goldrings activities” and finished the meeting stating: “ It all adds up to a failure on an epic scale.”