Turmoil? Or no cause for concern? What's going on at the RFU?

When Steve Brown was appointed chief executive of the Rugby Football Union in September 2017, he made his intentions clear: he wanted England to be the leading rugby nation in the world, both on and off the field.

Almost a year later, and things have taken a turn for the worse.

England endured a poor 2018 on the field, and off it the union has been embroiled in a row over the future of the women’s game, accusations of sexism in the workplace, and suggestions of financial irresponsibility.

But is there actually cause for concern at Twickenham?

BBC Sport takes a look at the issues facing the power-brokers of the English game.

Financial adjustment – or turmoil?

There is no doubt the RFU is at something of a financial cross-roads, with the union making a number of redundancies in the past few months.

In all, 62 people will or have lost their jobs, with the staff trimmed from 570 to nearer 500.

And, in a recent development, former CEO Francis Baron has been commissioned by a band of disenfranchised ex-presidents to investigate the union’s financial affairs.

The former Twickenham grandees are unhappy about cuts to the community game as well as the losses at the union in the past financial year – £7.7m in total, not helped by only having two Six Nations matches at home.

The RFU is understood to have found the conduct of the former presidents unfathomable, and is confused by Baron’s involvement, given he has not worked there since 2010.

Those at Twickenham have also questioned his understanding of the modern-day workings of the union and believe his report contains a number of factual inaccuracies.

However, the RFU balance sheet is not as healthy as it once was, with costs ballooning and income stalling.

A £220m Professional Game Agreement with Premiership clubs has stretched the finances, as has a vast increase in fees paid to England players on international duty.

Developing the east stand at Twickenham has run £30m over budget thanks largely, but not exclusively, to tighter and more expensive safety measures in light of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

The high expense of running Twickenham, a staff head count that swelled before the Rugby World Cup in 2015, and an uncertain financial climate post-Brexit have all contributed.

While its critics claim the RFU is in financial turmoil, the union describes it as a necessary and unavoidable financial adjustment.

Either way, the RFU is not immune to the financial landscape.

Elite, grassroots or both?

Like the Football Association, the RFU has a twin purpose: to maintain a vibrant and successful game at both the elite end – the England senior teams – and at grassroots level.

But while England head coach Eddie Jones’ department has been protected from the cost-cutting measures, the community game has been hit with 35 of the 62 redundancies.

In some places, that has left projects half-completed and gaps which are being filled by hard-working unpaid volunteers – leading to unrest at the grassroots.

Conversely, Jones has been given carte blanche to do what he needs to make his side the best in the world. With this in mind, a flop at the World Cup next year is unthinkable.

This all highlights a dilemma at the core of the RFU. Trimming the spending on the senior team would create numerous jobs at community level, but what should be the union’s priority? Does a successful England team lead to a healthy grassroots, or vice-versa?

Either way, the two are inextricably linked.

Without a prosperous, successful and profitable England senior side – be that through sponsorship, ticket sales, merchandising, hospitality or broadcast revenues – there is no money to invest in the grassroots game.

England Women win Rugby World Cup<!–

Women’s game – professional or not?

There was widespread confusion among the England women’s players last week, when Brown announced it was the union’s ambition to fully professionalise the women’s game as early as this season.

That came just days after the head of women’s rugby, Nicky Ponsford, told the players via email no decision would be made until September at least.

With the current ad-hoc match payments insufficient as a salary, it has left the women’s 15-a-side players in limbo, unsure whether to commit to jobs away from rugby, or hold out for a full-time deal.

While some argue the RFU ‘has the money’ to finance a whole professional arm, in reality this is overly simplistic.

Despite strides being made in this area – the new Premier 15s league, for example – the women’s game is not yet at the point where it can fully sustain itself commercially. Brown also admits the current policy of ‘flip-flopping’ resources between Sevens and XVs has been a failure.

A couple of years ago, the RFU may have been able to professionalise the women’s game without the need to see a return on the investment. That is no longer the case.

2019 or bust

The belt-tightening climate may also hit the RFU council and other privileged members, who have all enjoyed free tickets, lunches, and accommodation at England matches.

So far, the council has rejected attempts to cut back on their match-day benefits, to the frustration of Twickenham insiders, while some former presidents were far from enamoured at plans to move them from an over-populated Royal Box during the Six Nations.

But the RFU is determined not to become embroiled in a civil war with the likes of Baron and the former presidents.

Brown and other RFU bosses will meet the group in the next few weeks to discuss their grievances, while the latest business plan was approved by the RFU council as recently as June.

Unlike a decade ago, the RFU is, with first Ian Ritchie and now Brown at the helm, a transparent and modern organisation, while Twickenham remains a profitable and lucrative institution – the envy of unions worldwide.

However the current focus on the running of the union piles even more pressure on the senior team. Perform well at the World Cup, and things such as the cuts to the community game, the redundancies, and the trimming of council privileges will be seen as harsh, but fair.

But if England fail to make the semi-finals in Japan, then not only will Jones go, but Brown may too.

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