Big Interview: RFU chairman Bill Sweeney discusses the state of the community game in England

Craig Salmon talks to RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney during his visit to Preston Grasshoppers last weekend
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Preston Grasshoppers can be held as a beacon of leadership, authority and influence within the sport of rugby union.

That is the opinion of the RFU’s chief executive Bill Sweeney, who spent an enjoyable couple of days at Lightfoot Green last weekend.

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The head of the sport’s governing body in England was in town to see the club’s North Premier fixture against Billingham.

Bill Sweeney meets some members of the women's team at Preston Grasshoppers (photo: Mike Craig)Bill Sweeney meets some members of the women's team at Preston Grasshoppers (photo: Mike Craig)
Bill Sweeney meets some members of the women's team at Preston Grasshoppers (photo: Mike Craig)

As well as witnessing Hoppers battle to an excellent 40-27 victory on Saturday, Sweeney also got an insider’s view of the club in operation both on and off the pitch.

He chatted with club supporters and officials, as well as gaining insights about the state of the game as a whole from both sets of players from their perspective following the final whistle.

A day later, Sweeney was back at Lightfoot Lane to watch the club’s thriving junior and colts set-up in full swing.

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Reaching out to the rugby community at all different levels across the country is a regular part of the chief executive’s remit and his visit to Central Lancashire certainly gave him plenty of food for thought on returning to RFU headquarters.

RFU chairman Bill Sweeney receives an official Preston Grasshoppers tie (photo: Mike Craig)RFU chairman Bill Sweeney receives an official Preston Grasshoppers tie (photo: Mike Craig)
RFU chairman Bill Sweeney receives an official Preston Grasshoppers tie (photo: Mike Craig)

“If there is a Premiership match on a Friday, I will go to that,” said Sweeney.

“But at the weekends, I tend to go around the country and look at the community game at different levels.

“There is a lot going on in the game.

“We have got future competition structure changes, changes to leagues, new laws in respect of Covid-19.

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“We want to keep abreast of things like participation rates and making sure players are getting the right experiences.

“You don’t really find out what’s going on unless you turn up to places in person.

“For me the most valuable part of watching last Saturday’s game between Hoppers and Billingham, which was a good game by the way, was going in the bar after the game, having a couple of pints and meeting two sets of players.

“It was good to get their views on the game and any changes they would like to see.

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“I think Preston Grasshoppers is a club which do lead the way. I think what we have found going through the Covid-19 pandemic is that we have had a lot more meetings online.

“The ability to get clubs and their officials around a video screen and talk about the issues has become easier than what has gone on previously where we have had to travel around and arrange meetings.

“We have had lots of meetings with clubs and they don’t always agree with each other. Hoppers have certainly come up with a few proposals which have made sense on paper but a lot of other clubs felt it wasn’t perhaps the right way for they themselves to go.

“But at least we have been having those conversations and healthy debates and Hoppers have certainly been at the forefront of it.”

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In light of coronavirus, Sweeney admits the sport has faced an uncertain future but his visit to Lightfoot Green was a positive one and he believes the game is robust and the future is in safe hands.

“When I am sitting at Twickenham, I am thinking about Covid and whether that has had an effect on player participation – have players left the game, have they gone playing another sport?

“I came to Preston and it’s clear to see the club is doing really well.

“They have got six teams now and the club doesn’t appear to have had any problems with players returning to the game, which is obviously very good.”

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One of the major topics of conversation during his visit to Hoppers was the subject of payment to players within the amateur game.

Within the structure of rugby union there are salary caps at various levels of the game.

At level five, a club’s wage bill cannot exceed £50,000 per annum and that rises to £125,000 at level four and £250,000 at level three.

“What we are trying to stop is a club with a wealthy benefactor who only wants to run one team and rocket through the leagues,” said Sweeney.

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“They may want to poach the best players from other clubs which obviously harms those clubs.

“But then the benefactor may die or gets bored and then that particular club could go bust and that leads to a lot of damage to the game as a whole.

“So how do we get it so the salary cap structure is right? I don’t think you can ever stop people from paying players but what we want to see is for every pound a club spends on a player, we want to see a pound spent on infrastructure.

“When you come to a place like Preston Grasshoppers and you see what’s going on here with the investment in their facilities, that is helping the club’s revenue streams , they are investing in junior and mini-rugby, a women’s team.

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“It means what you have got is a much more robust club which can stand on its own two feet.

“So it’s about getting that balance right between how much you spend on players and how much you spend on infrastructure.

“You can go to some clubs at levels six or seven and they are paying a player £350 a week – that’s like a mortgage.

“You’re starting then to bring in money as an incentive to play the game rather than a player wanting to be at a club where they grew up through the junior section and are part of the social fabric of the club.

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“That’s dangerous. I think you will never be able to take away player payments – it is difficult to control.

“You have to be careful that you don’t start encouraging brown envelope payments.

“It is difficult to control but I think the key is to have stronger minimum standards in place so that you actually can say, ‘Okay you’re paying players, that’s fine but you have to have a certain pitch quality in place, floodlight capability or you have to be running a women’s team’.

“So it’s not just about promotion and going through the leagues by paying players.”

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During his visit to the club, Sweeney was presented with a Hoppers’ club tie and also officially opened the new 1869 bar, named after the year Hoppers was established.

“We opened the new 1869 bar which will hopefully draw in more people from the local community even if they don’t follow rugby,” said Sweeney, who was previously the head of the British Olympic Association.

“Rugby clubs these days can’t just only think about rugby. You go to a really well run club like Hoppers and I have been to a few others as well recently – they are looking at what they can do for 364 days of the years to drive revenue.

“Quite often the revenue which comes directly from rugby is in the minority compared to other revenue streams.

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“All the investment that Hoppers are putting in is to make sure of their long-term sustainability and future.”

Meanwhile, Sweeney has backed Hoppers to win promotion from the North Premier League this season.

Paul Arnold’s men find themselves in second spot in the table after a fine start to the season which seen them win five out of six games.

Sweeney was in attendance at Lightfoot Green to see Hoppers overcome one of their promotion rivals Billingham and they travel to derby rivals Blackburn this afternoon.

“They look good do Hoppers,” said Sweeney.

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“Last weekend was a big one against Billingham because I think they will be one of the contenders.

"I think Hoppers , Billingham and Otley are the favourites this season. When I was talking to the Hoppers players, they were feeling good about themselves.”

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