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English rugby chiefs facing backlash over budget cuts

LONDON (AP) — English rugby’s governing body was accused Wednesday of attempting to ring-fence the country’s top league and for being “underhand and deplorable” after slashing the budgets of clubs in the second tier with little notice.

The Rugby Football Union’s decision to cut by half the funding to Championship clubs for next season, returning it to pre-2016 levels, has been widely criticized for its severity and timing. The budget cuts might prevent clubs from having the resources to meet the standards required to earn promotion to the top-flight Premiership.

"I believe this is giving Premiership Rugby all that they want with regard to ring-fencing, in all but name and with none of the financial commitment or support,” said Geoff Irvine, the chairman of second-tier team Bedford Blues.

Irvine said there had been little regard for the route many players’ careers have taken from the Championship to the England team in the past. Alistair Bow, the chairman of second-tier Nottingham, said the RFU’s decision “will affect many people’s livelihoods” and puts lower-ranking clubs “in a very difficult position."

“We are even more disappointed and somewhat astounded at the underhand and deplorable way that we feel this has been communicated,” he said. "To give Championship clubs next to no notice to be able to take action is not acceptable and we will be meeting urgently to review our strategy and consider our position going forwards."

RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney defended the cuts, saying the clubs had not achieved a “set of objectives and deliverables” outlined in 2015. “The gateway is still open for clubs to get into the Premiership if they have the necessary financial resources and meet the minimum standards required,” Sweeney said.

"The Championship is, and will continue to be, a useful way for players to get additional developmental experience, but we do not believe it is the primary place where Premiership and England players are discovered and developed.”

Analysis by the RFU showed that Harry Williams, a prop for Exeter who used to play for Jersey and Nottingham, was the only member of England’s current senior squad who could be described as a product of the Championship.

With Premiership clubs also halving their contributions to the second tier for next season, and altogether from 2021, many Championship clubs will be forced to become semi-professional. Top-flight clubs are choosing to invest in their own competitions to develop young players.

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