THE West Midlands’ two First Division rugby clubs, Moseley and Coventry, have outlined their opposition to the Rugby Football Union’s proposals to create a fully-professional 12-team ‘Championship’ below the Guinness Premiership.
The governing body yesterday took the unusual step of publicising plans that would see the current National One reduced by four teams, the introduction of an Anglo Welsh Trophy and most controversially the creation of promotion play-offs for the top eight and relegation play-offs for the bottom four - all by next September.
But perhaps most demanding is the RFU’s insistence that all dozen teams must have full-time squads, coaches and office staff in place by the time the 2009-10 campaign kicks off – in only 10 months’ time.
These plans were rejected by 12 votes to four by the clubs’ umbrella organisation, First Division Rugby Ltd, at the end of October although there was a commitment to continue dialogue with Twickenham about how best to take the sport forward outside the top flight.
But the RFU, whose council meets on Friday to vote on the scheme, has ignored that verdict and, instead of keeping their negotiations with clubs like Moseley and Coventry under wraps, will reveal to the world the full extent of the changes they want to implement.
In order to attain the necessary reduction in numbers by next season, the bottom five teams from this term will be relegated into National Two, with the winners - potentially Birmingham & Solihull who are second - promoted.
That means Moseley and Coventry, currently ninth and tenth respectively, cannot afford to slip any lower than 11th if they are to avoid demotion.
That is only one of the reasons why both have come out against the union’s plans and, having voted against them in private last month, made their objections public last night.
“If the FDR clubs have voted wholeheartedly that this does not work, then why can’t the RFU accept that?” a spokesman for Moseley asked. “If this idea is so exciting, why haven’t we all agreed to it?
“There was a decision taken by FDR to reject this proposal by which we are collectively bound and we are fully supportive of that stance. There just aren’t enough details at the moment.”
Those concerns are shared by Coventry owner Andrew Green who similarly aligned his club with the league organisers: “We support FDR in its negotiations and are continuing to work under their direction.”
While both clubs are concerned at the loss of fixtures, the rectitude of a play-off system and the haste with which the union are trying to force this through, the cut in central funding is the most pressing concern.
Despite wanting the second tier to be an exclusively full-time division, the union are intending to reduce the £100,000 they give each year to bring this about. In return they offer a vague promise of a sponsorship deal with Guinness, unspecified television coverage and money for English-qualified players and coaches.
There is also no guarantee the Welsh Premiership teams will agree to a cross-border competition although there have been gently encouraging noises emanating from the WRU. Whether the union can force this through on Friday, however, is not clear. While there is a small clique of clubs in FDR who are more sympathetic to their efforts, including London Welsh and Doncaster, the rest are set against it.
The RFU could, however, find support in the National Clubs’ Association, the body representing teams at levels three and four, who are keen on the idea of their leagues increasing to 16 teams.
Chairman of the RFU management board, Martyn Thomas, believes the time is right for a change, saying: “For too long First Division Rugby has hovered between the community game and the Premiership, uncertain of both its standing in the structure and its future. Now is the time to establish its rightful place. The Rugby Football Union is fully committed to funding and supporting a professional and robust league with minimum entry criteria and a salary cap that will support the Guinness Premiership.”