THE SCOTTISH RUGBY UNION has refused to respond to reports in the English press which claim that the governing body may be on the verge of taking over Aviva Premiership side Worcester Warriors.
The SRU were first publicly linked to this story back in October, but that trail seemed to run cold when ex-Swindon Town FC chairman Jed McCrory emerged as the ‘preferred bidder’.
However, The Rugby Paper reported yesterday [Sunday] that McCrory had failed in his attempt to buy the stricken club and that the period of exclusivity he had been granted to put a deal together expired on Friday. The newspaper added that the SRU had taken over as front-runners to make the purchase.
The English edition of The Times newspaper got in on the act this [Monday] morning, reporting that McCrory is expected to come back with an improved offer, but confirming that that the SRU remain interested – even if they are still “a long way from having an offer accepted”.
A spokesman for the SRU stated earlier today that: “We never comment on speculation.” But given that they are usually more than happy to clarify falsehoods, there is a real sense of ‘no smoke without fire’ about this story.
It does, however, seem extremely far-fetched. Given the well documented challenges of financing top level professional rugby teams, it is hard to fathom why SRU chief executive Mark Dodson and his fellow board members would want to get into bed with a proven financial basket-case.
Anyone in any doubt as to just how catastrophic the situation is at Sixways should be aware that the club’s last published accounts (for the year to 30 June 2016) show that their entire income barely covered just their staff costs, let alone anything else.
This is a club that has traded at a deficit of approximately £4m a year over the last five years. To put that into context, the SRU made a profit of just £1.7m in their latest annual accounts. Taking on Worcester would therefore be likely to plunge the SRU into an overall loss-making position with immediate effect – unless a new financial partner with deep pockets has been recruited.
It is just over 13 months since the board and the council of the SRU called a Special General Meeting, at which they sought, and were granted, permission to seek private external investment into Scottish rugby. Is it possible that this investment was never meant to be for Edinburgh or Glasgow Warriors, but a separate entity outside Scotland?
Whether the board would have the authority to take such a step – which would inevitably have significant ramifications for the domestic game – is a moot point.
All that aside, any purchase could be vetoed by the English RFU, which has the right to block any club ownership of more than 20 percent.
Then there is the issue of the Professional Game Agreement between the RFU and the English Premiership clubs which was finally signed off after two years of negotiation in July 2016. This contract involved in excess of £200 million being handed out by the governing bodyover eight years, and includes funding of academies at Premiership clubs. It is hard to imagine that Twickenham will be particularly keen to bankroll a Scottish set-up planted on English soil.
The deal also requires the English Qualified Player (EQP) threshold to be met – which means clubs are financially rewarded on a graduated basis for having 17 or more English qualified players in their 23-man match-day squads. An SRU owned Worcester Warriors would either have to take a hit on their share of that £200 million pot or be left with a severely limited scope for giving Scottish players game time.
An SRU buy-out of Worcester could also be opposed by European Professional Club Rugby (which runs the Champions and Challenge Cup) on account of conflict of interest, on the basis that the SRU already own two other clubs competing in that competition.
There is clearly a lot more questions than answers out there at the moment, but everything should become a bit clearer in the next few days as the players have been told that the new owner will be unveiled by the end of the week. If it does happen in that timescale, it won’t be a minute too soon.
With a number of the country’s top clubs currently deep in deliberation about gambling their future on the SRU’s plans to create a ‘Super 6’ competition at the top of the domestic league structure, it is vital that they have a clear understanding of where that competition is likely to fit into Murrayfield’s overall strategy for the ‘performance’ game.
The SRU have pledged £825,000 per year to the Super 6 programme – which is a piffling amount when compared to the £4 million per year it currently costs to run Worcester Warriors.