Lichfield RUFC’s appeal against the decision by the RFU to exclude Lichfield Ladies from the new women's elite competition, was concluded on April 19th. The decision of the appeal panel appointed by the RFU was announced on Friday April 28th. i.e. that:
“For the all the reasons we have set out above we are not persuaded in any way that the process has not been followed or that there has been any unfairness to Lichfield. In those circumstances their appeal is unsuccessful”.
Throughout all this we have tried to maintain a polite but resolute position – both directly with the RFU and through all of our communications via the press and on social media. Given the outcome, this approach has obviously not helped us one bit, so we feel that now is the time to make public our real thoughts on how the process has been managed and executed.
Lichfield would therefore make the following comments in respect of the selection and appeal process:
- Despite the final decision, the appeal hearings were handled in a very thorough manner and Lichfield have no issues with the way that this part of the process was handled.
- However, despite highlighting and evidencing numerous potential flaws in the original selection process, the appeal panel has quite incredibly refuted, or refused to accept the relevance of, every one of our claims! Their response on a total of 29 points is to support the view of the RFU. This is completely unbelievable and supports our view that the whole process was weighted or biased against us from the start.
- It has become abundantly clear throughout that irrespective of any formal evaluation or scoring system, Lichfield simply did not ‘fit the bill’ in terms of what the RFU were looking for in the new league. It was and is, all about image and money. The RFU actually complimented Lichfield on being an ‘outstanding community club’ but then went on to make this appear to be a disadvantage to our bid.
- The RFU stated that this was a process intended to be open to any and all clubs, and actually stated that previous pedigree in developing ‘elite’ players (those capable of representing England at international level) was not a factor in their assessment. They then established a scoring system to assess the bids/proposals which effectively excluded any cognisance of previous experience or proven pedigree.
- The RFU preferred to base their judgement on promises of future capabilities which obviously cannot have been proven during the selection process. Significantly, for a number of the teams accepted this included a promise of being able to deliver playing squads of the necessary size and quality. Despite lots of evidence to the contrary they continue to state that all the accepted teams will be able to field suitable playing squads. They did not accept that simply believing these promises was a flaw in the process.
- Lichfield still refute the continued insistence from the RFU that ‘all clubs who have been offered a place in the competition have an appropriate player base’ and that this was supported by the appeal panel, who state that they ‘have no doubt at all that these issues would have been dealt with via application forms and in interview and see no evidence that teams have had failings overlooked’. There is lots of evidence to the contrary, confirming that this could not have been properly tested and proven during the selection process, so was and is, an obvious flaw.
- During the appeal Lichfield questioned the neutrality of the selection panel, particularly Nicki Ponsford, who is an alumni of Loughborough University. The appeal panel decided that because Ms Ponsford had graduated from the university some 26 years ago, this was not a conflict of interest. Their supposition that someone suddenly loses any allegiance to their alma mater after some precise number of years is in itself an interesting concept, but it also ignores the fact that Ms Ponsford coached ladies’ rugby at Loughborough University as recently as 2003-04. Both of these points should have been sufficient for Ms Ponsford to recuse herself from the process, as soon as it was clear that Loughborough were one of the applicants. That she did not do so, and even when challenged on the alumni point during the appeal still did not acknowledge the coaching link, is an obvious flaw in the process which the appeal panel have chosen to ignore.
- The scoring system they used to compare the bids consisted of eighteen questions, all equally weighted in terms of their importance to the final score. In this way, the number and the enthusiasm of the people turning up to make the presentation of the bid was judged as being of equal importance as any other factor they scored (including the ability to provide the elite playing numbers/quality). Again they did not accept that this was a flaw in the process.
- During our appeal we identified numerous examples of changes to the panel’s scores and multiple errors in the addition of the total scores allocated to each team. Whilst these changes may genuinely have been made during the interview stage and the mistakes in the totting up process could possibly have been completely innocent, the number and widespread nature of these changes and errors suggest that statistically at least this was highly unlikely and hence suggested potential collusion and/or adjustment of the final scores.
- Despite us requesting it as part of the appeal the RFU continually refused to provide information on other team’s finance submissions; how other teams were assessed; when scores had been amended/changed; the conditions on offers made to a team or teams. Only when the appeal panel asked for this sort of information was it forthcoming. They even state in their findings that ‘By the conclusion of the hearing on the 19 April it was clear to us that the RFU had made extensive disclosure of all matters that could reasonably be said to have a bearing on our decision’. That they did this so belatedly and only when forced, shows that it plainly was not the transparent process that they still conclude it was.
- There were two primary reasons that the RFU initially gave as to why we had not been selected. Interestingly, when the actual scores were made available to us during the appeal process we saw that these were not actually our lowest scoring points or categories, so it is difficult to see why they were pinpointed. However, either way we do not accept the interpretation that the RFU had made from the written proposals, the subsequent (limited) interview questions, or even during the appeal process itself.
- The RFU stated that they were ‘concerned’ that our organisation or proposed delivery structure was dependent upon one individual who was not a full-time employee of the rugby club and had other employment. Whilst it is true that the head of our proposed organisation structure did have other employment, it conveniently ignored the fact that we had 13 other named individuals in the support structure who were to be employed by the club, hence again surpassing the minimum requirements defined. Therefore, to say that it was ‘dependent’ upon that one individual is a gross misrepresentation or misconception.
- During the initial selection, the RFU were apparently unconvinced by our assertions that the club could provide the additional monies required to fund the annual playing budget that we presented. This despite it being a relatively modest additional sum and the fact that we confidently claimed this was perfectly manageable by generating additional funds from both expanding the club’s current revenue generating capabilities and new sponsorship opportunities that the competition provided.
- We were never asked to name any such sponsors and indeed due to the private and confidential nature of the bid process, still do not believe that we could have discussed such opportunities, let alone made any agreements, with third parties at that stage.
- During the appeal we made further assertions about our ability to generate these funds and the relative size of the shortfall that may then be required from new external sponsors. There was one small error in one of the numbers presented in our appeal submission. Incredibly this error has been referenced in the decision as if it invalidates our whole finance submission, whilst the apparent inability of the RFU to even understand the basic difference between a P&L and a Balance Sheet has been completely ignored.
- We still do not believe that the same forensic analysis has been made of other clubs’ financial submissions.
- On the contrary, from what was evidenced to us it seems that most of the other clubs’ revenue generation capabilities were presented as being provided by a single sponsor or ‘value in kind’ from their host (but not necessarily formally or financially linked) men’s team.
- How such arrangements can be said to be a more ‘sustainable model’ than that of a well-run and independently financed community club that has no debt, full control over its own assets and has successfully run a women’s section for over 25 years, defies any sensible or commercial logic.
- Instead they claim that Lichfield would need ‘to put every last penny that the club has into this commitment’. They fail to understand that this is how a community club is run. i.e. we set operating budgets based upon the revenue available, effectively planning to only make a small surplus that allows for future improvements. i.e. we do not budget to make any significant profit.
- Once again the RFU have demonstrated that they are so far removed from and ignorant about, the realities of community rugby.
- Despite the decision of the Appeal panel, we still firmly believe that following feedback during the selection process other clubs were given the ability to amend or improve their proposals. Such opportunity was not given to Lichfield, and on the contrary they did not even highlight our supposed flaws during the interview stage.
- After it had been established that there were 12 teams (including Lichfield) that met the ‘Minimum Operating Standards’ and the final scores/ranking had been established, Lichfield, as one of the lower scoring clubs, were not selected purely on the basis that we are not in the North East (or North West) and hence in the final reckoning we missed out purely on the basis of geography. The Appeal panel have decided that it was within the jurisdiction of the RFU to make such a decision. We do not accept this, but even if it was allowed for within their ‘process’ then it still flies in the face of all that is equitable. e. this was not about choosing the best teams even by the RFU’s own assessment, but about who “fitted” from the RFU’s point of view.
We still firmly believe that over the last two decades and more, no club has committed as much resource and opened its doors to accommodate every request the RFU has ever placed upon us as Lichfield has done. To now be perceived as less able than so many others with no such track record, to further develop the elite players and to take the game forward is so frustrating and hence very difficult to accept.
The embargo on promotion and relegation, means that for three years we are also prevented from doing what we are best at. i.e. proving our worth on the field and winning promotion back into the new competition. This makes it even more galling and difficult to plan for the future, and adds a further penalty upon us.
Despite all this we are determined to carry on, to continue to support the players and the coaches of Lichfield Ladies and to prove to the RFU that they are so wrong in assuming that our players will simply migrate to the other clubs – clubs that they do deem to be worthy of a place in the new competition. They may be able to pressurise some of the current international players to do so as they effectively give them no other option, but we are confident that the nucleus of our playing section will remain together, become even stronger in the process and continually prove to the RFU the flaws in the decision they have made.
These players are of course the ones that are most affected by the real impact of this decision.
That, despite everything that has been going on around them, they managed to retain the composure and focus required to achieve a third place finish in this season’s Women’s Premiership, is a tremendous credit to them all.
Finally, we have to state that we have been delighted by the support we have received from so many people within and beyond the rugby world. Everyone we have come into contact with at other clubs and across the media has unequivocally continued to support our view that the decision was and is, both unjustifiable and unfair.
The online petition urging the RFU to reconsider has now been signed by almost 6000 people. https://www.change.org/p/rfu-rfu-to-review-lichfield-ladies-bid?recruiter=374232268&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink
Thank you to everyone who has demonstrated such tremendous support.
Lichfield Rugby Club