Terry Burwell Competitions and Tournament Director at the Rugby Football Union was present at Camborne on Sunday for the Cornish Pirates vs. Bedford Blues Play-Off match in Pool A of the Championship.
He spoke to reporters prior to the match and gave them an insight on the RFU Championship, British & Irish Cup and other topical rugby matters.
Asked how he thought the inaugural RFU Championship season had gone so far;
“There has defiantly been some good but there has also been some distinctly average and some downright questionable, we‘ve all got to be very honest about the situation, it’s never easy to introduce something that’s new and different to both players and supporters. I think we also have to reflect back on what it was like before we make any rash judgements. Here we are now at Easter and in this part of the world (South West), there are three or four massive games still to come and the appetite is really whetted for it. Where would we have been this time last year, not with the same narrative, so it’s not a time for knee jerk reactions is the way I see it, it’s a time for honesty we haven’t got to be precious about anything we’ve introduced and say that’s absolutely right, but not necessarily for change after one season as such but I do think there is some distinct tinkering that needs to be done with out actually throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Terry was then asked what he felt needed to be tinkered in the format;
“I think we need to see if the regular season has enough importance attached to it, one of the things we thought about was whether some points should be carried forward from the regular season or weight your position in the play-offs depending how well you did during the regular season and that was rejected in the first instance, once again it was new and people didn’t always understand it. Well now people are saying maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea, we’ve mapped out a few options; the critical thing here is not to make it too complicated. The average supporter wants to know were they are in the table, what does it mean with regard to the play-offs, and what their team needs to do to be successful, so if you try to make it to complicated and they have to rush for their calculators every weekend, then I think we have probably got it wrong.
In hindsight should this have been place in the relegation pool C
“Our preference in the first instance was in the relegation pool to actually look at that. That was then rejected. We did a lot of this by consultation, you used the term suck & see, people came back and said “Maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea and we have mapped against what would we have done with the season as is in terms of the position. What we do know is this round of games that we’ve had now, in week 3 couldn’t have been more competitive, look at the results, 6-3 to Coventry yesterday, the reality is it makes for good watching unless you’re actually playing in it. Yes Moseley are up against it but they have got three matches to turn it around on the pitch.
Was he and the RFU disappointed by the lower than anticipated crowds for the play-off matches so far;
“We are surprised by the small crowds that these play-off matches have attracted so far, we are putting some resources to support the promotion of that, we’ve talked closely with the press and media people – to be fair there is not a lot more you can do down here in the southwest, you get very good support from your local media and everything else, so it’s got to be down to the fact that people don’t really understand what it’s about and the motivation to take it forward. More critically looking at Doncaster yesterday with Exeter coming up with just over 1,000 people watching now that has to change we’ve got to find a way of moving that forward, it’s a bit early to draw any reaction, after the first week, the weather wasn’t great, it clashed with the final week of the six nations, – the second week, well we’re not too sure what the reasons were there, so there is no clear indication we need the clubs to help us to find out why so many people are not supporting – next weekend more local derbies – there’s the SKY game at Plymouth coming up. Plymouth were worried that the SKY broadcast might impact significantly on their gate, hopefully it won’t. I am concerned because most clubs felt that what would happen in the play-offs is when they would put the cream on the cake and start to drive their finances in and the season would have been done, but it’s not happened so that is something we need to really look at very carefully and whether the format is right why is the supporter not enthused by it. Clearly the players are and the media are, coaches are very keen they have built their teams up during the season but the supporters haven’t latched on to it in the same way.
Terry was asked what the RFU planned to do prevent a repeat of this season’s tale of financial woe with some of the Championship clubs;
“Well I’ve long been a firm believer in the French system, which basically is that you have to have proper audited control, now the French are very bureaucratic and consequences of that means more regulation control, but if we are going to regulate that’s the area. The league is only as strong as your weakest link, and if you’ve got 2/3 weak links in that structure it drags everybody back down, the consequences of that is we have to put in place really robust regulations to support that. We are in the process of doing that, we’ve got to make sure that everybody’s business model is strong, but we can’t have situations were clubs are going beyond their means from the very word go. They have to be able to deal within their financial and business model, and if that model requires somebody putting in an extra bit of money to ensure it works, that’s what Dicky Evans (Cornish Pirates) does, what Geoff Irvine does at Bedford, then that’s fine, but ultimately it has to be sustainable in it’s own right. I think with hindsight there were 2/3 accidents waiting to happen, because people had put such great effort before the Championship began into being in it to start with and the consequences of that was the financial side were very rocky. Other matter is of course due diligence you have to find out who the people are who are trying to help run these clubs, soccer have found that they are not necessarily people that you’d want to, having said that you do have some great people who do support the game in the local communities but there are others who frankly have not served their clubs anyway near as well.
Terry was then asked about the frustration in some clubs regarding Dual Registered Players;
“You have to look at why we brought in. 2/3years ago the majority of our young players were playing less than 10 games a season, how can you become a quality player only playing such a small number of games. It just isn’t going to happen. We changed that to help players going into the Championship in particular, as a result of that we reached the final of the U.20 World Cup twice, that’s no accident it’s fact. The Championship and the competitiveness of that have led to the improvement of players and more of them this year are playing in Premiership rugby than ever before.
“The balance ultimately is to make sure it doesn’t destroy the competition.
“ If two academies are effectively forming a barrier down the M5, then it is making it difficult for players to get down to this part of the world. But there are other attractions for young players to play rugby in Plymouth and Cornwall. We do need to get an agreement and the general feeling is too many in a match day squad is not good for the competition. The other issue is you want clubs to be genuine rugby clubs, you want people to feel they are part of the club not just transported in because it serves their individual needs or that of a wider-sphere like England, ultimately the strength of any competition is the strength of the clubs that are playing in it.
How did he feel this year’s British and Irish Cup had gone so far and were any changes in the pipeline for next season?
“No, I don’t think we’ll change it. Some clubs have had 2 home games and 3 away, this year so we’ll have to redress that balance. I think we’ve got incredibly lucky this year we’ve got four fantastic teams and two great semi-finals. Newport’s result at Leinster re-invigorated the competition and gave an opportunity for the Cornish Pirates. I think the Celtic Unions have got more out of it than the Championship clubs, and given greater opportunities for their players is that a good thing? Not a bad thing necessarily. For my sins I also sit on the board of ERC, I’ve been involved with the European Challenge Cup for 12 years that was a baby that nobody wanted, this year we’ve tweaked it we’ve got the drop down from the Heineken Cup so we have a Wasps v Gloucester Q/F that’s changed the concept of that competition, so once again it’s early days. Again you’ve got the potential of some great rugby here maybe Munster travelling here for a final, which will be live on SKY, so the potential there is phenomenal if you beat Doncaster.
So there’s no question at the moment of the entry of Italian clubs, which had been mooted?
“We had a meeting of ERC last Wednesday and the Italian teams are going to stay in the Challenge Cup now, that’s for one year, it’s something we’ve done to help develop Italian rugby.
On financial assistance for travel in the cup
“We thought that the club’s home gate would have been sufficient to justify the cost of an away tie, that’s no quite worked out. If we are going to make any tweak at all it will be to find a way of providing financial support to meet the away costs, I don’t know what the travelling support has been like – Pirates played in Dublin didn’t they? I suspect there were a few (300 or so made the trip)… you can’t really row from here!!!.
We’ll look at the timing next season, we may well go in tandem with Heineken Cup weekends, that in itself might give it another boost, the critical thing is not to be myopic about this, and look at the bigger picture and see how this might develop.
With regards to the England Counties team Terry was asked if the RFU supported the proposals from France for a 4 or 5 Nations tournament played over two seasons as in the FIRA-AER European Nations Cup competitions.
“We think what we’re doing with a couple of games in the spring and the summer tour is the right way of supporting the National Leagues and the County Championship program. I have a little bit of a problem of seeing another competition
at that level, I think that would change people’s conception of what it’s there for, coaches would want more preparation time, more investment. I know we are in a semi-professional era for most of those players, but it’s still quite nice to keep it relatively amateur, that’s the view of the Irish and probably the Scots as well. The French interestingly have moved, from a couple of years ago they were selecting their players from a pretty low base, now suddenly there is a lot of Fédérale 1 players that are wanting to play, nothing concentrates the French minds like losing a couple of times to England and that’s what happened when they got well beaten at Blackheath (three years ago), now they have bounced back and started selecting a more appropriate side. I think we need to look at how we select that team, looking more closely at players who have given a lot of service to clubs at that level, shouldn’t this be a little bit more like the Barbarians were you’ve got a choice between a 31 year old guy and a 19 year old youngster, how do you balance that, it’s a personal view, I would like to think it’s about who’s given a lot of service to rugby at that level over a period of time.
Terry was also asked if there was a danger of National League 1 being diminished in the current economic climate with funding being cut centrally from the RFU
“ I don’t think you’ll lose a strong National 1 as there is still a lot of good players about. It is sad if the only rationale for wanting to play rugby at that level is the financial reward that they would get, because the game played at that level is of a very good quality as you know from Launceston and Redruth in this part of the world and I know from what’s played up in Newbury and Esher. I don’t think money is necessarily the sole arbiter. The critical thing is we as a game have produced a lot of good quality players coming out of our youth sections and schools and we have to find a way of getting those in to levels 2/3/4 so that starts to reflect on the game and they have to want to play there for reasons other than someone putting £100/150 pounds in their pocket.
Terry was also asked about the travel subsidy for next season in National League 1
“It’s a massive issue, we’ve altered the way we fund clubs at that level and it’s about supporting travel payments it’s been reviewed again so that now we will be increasing the payments over 1,000 miles which will help Redruth and Launceston particularly on trips to Tyne dale and Blandon, it is very difficult to conceptualise that level of travel. (Launceston players arrived home at 4 am Easter Sunday after their trip to play Blaydon!)
Being in Cornwall the final question was about the changes to this season’s County Championship, which is just a few weeks away
“Player eligibility is critical to ensure that players are qualified to play in it but rolling subs will be interesting, in one way it’s good that the County Championship is being used as a means of testing these things in other ways it’s not because you need to make sure that the competition is still valid so people don’t just feel they are their for just a trial. I am hopeful that it will prove it’s worth, rolling subs is nothing new it’s being happening at schoolboy level and junior level for years, whether it impacts on the way County rugby is played and whether it ultimately impacts at higher levels, bearing in mind that this has come about from “Bloodgate” and whether this stops that happening again will be interesting, I suspect that the normal counties will still be strong, there doesn’t appear to be the same priority in Cornwall in the last 2/3 years amongst the player to play, I am sure they will be big events as they go forward but with Pirates having such a big May month it’s difficult to envisage how the two things will go in parallel, there must be an impact with the Pirates to the Cornwall County team, Cornwall playing away at Hertfordshire and a potential Pirates final against Munster or Ulster will make for an interesting weekend 15/16 May for a patriotic Cornishman!