The Rugby Football Union was accused of “failure on an epic scale” as the recent collapses of Worcester Warriors and Wasps were subjected to parliamentary scrutiny on Thursday. Julian Knight, chair of the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, put it to Bill Sweeney, the governing body’s chief executive, that he should consider his future at the helm of the sport.
“If you look behind you,” Knight told Sweeney, who sat alongside representatives from Premier Rugby and the Rugby Players Association at the hearing, “you will see people from Worcester, and they’re furious at your failings. You have failed in this instance and so has the RFU. Should you not be looking at your own position?”
Knight also said he would be referring the matter of Colin Goldring’s ownership of Worcester and Morecambe Football Club to the serious fraud office and John Campion, the police and crime commissioner for West Mercia. He told the hearing that Goldring is said to have falsified a claim to being a solicitor when he initially passed the English Football League’s directors test at a time when he was facing an investigation into his mishandling of €8m (£6.8m) of a client’s money. Goldring was subsequently disqualified in May by the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority, news of which came through in July, nearly three months before Worcester went into administration.
Much of the committee’s focus was centred on the fit-and-proper-persons test in rugby. Although Goldring and his partner, Jason Whittingham, were buying into Premier Rugby, it is the RFU that is responsible for performing the sport’s checks and balances. The implementation of a continuing fit-and-proper-persons test “seems fairly obvious”, Knight said, “when you have this sort of situation where someone has, frankly, asset-stripped one of your major clubs. We’ve seen these issues in other sports. Did it not occur to you to do this?”
Sweeney replied with a timeline of events, in which the imperative to save the club overtook the obvious questions about the owners. “They assured us that new financial measures were being explored,” said Sweeney of a meeting with Whittingham and Goldring in July. “We also share the frustration and somewhat anger that there were numerous missed deadlines, missed promises and guarantees.”
Knight spluttered his disbelief that Sweeney should be taking assurances from such people, but Simon Massie-Taylor, the chief executive of Premier Rugby, quietly mentioned at one point the part played by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which loaned those same (in Sweeney’s words) “reprehensible characters” more than £15m of taxpayers money during the pandemic.
Sweeney also added: “One of the major learnings that will come out of this very sorry episode … is a binary one-off owners and directors test is not sufficient to prevent future bad behaviour or bad management. To have ongoing regular conditional reviews in terms of their performance and suitability is necessary.”
After being told he was “asleep on the job” by Knight, Sweeney highlighted that the RFU and Premiership Rugby were currently formalising terms for a new Professional Game Agreement (PGA) which would help safeguard the sport from further cases like Wasps and Worcester.
Another outstanding matter, as the administrators attempt to manoeuvre what is left of the club towards a successful sale, is the question of their shareholding in the Premiership, the all-important P-share. Carol Hart, chief executive of the Worcester Warriors Foundation, spoke movingly in the morning’s earlier session of the impact on the club’s collapse for the local community.
She argued that the foundation’s work, which touches tens of thousands of people, would be put at risk without the P-share. Robin Walker, the local MP, praised the solidarity of other fans, even of other international unions, who offered their support, but argued that the real test would be whether Premier Rugby allows Worcester to retain their shareholding.
“I completely understand that some potential bidders want to retain that asset within the administration process,” said Massie-Taylor in response later. “I don’t think that sends a particularly strong message to the rest of our clubs – that you can go into administration and retain assets while getting rid of liabilities.”