Worcester’s hopes of resurrecting as an elite level club have been plunged into danger with their prospective new owners braced for the Rugby Football Union to refuse entry into next season’s Championship due to demands which “raise the spectre of shadow dictatorship”.
The consortium – led by the chief executive Jim O’Toole – has taken aim at the RFU, claiming the union’s conditions for approval are “unreasonable” while on another dramatic day for Worcester, Steve Diamond – the club’s former director of rugby whose rival bid had previously failed – also declared his consortium was still primed to swoop in.
The RFU board is due to meet on Friday to decide whether to approve the takeover by Atlas Worcester Warriors Rugby Club Ltd, backed by the O’Toole and James Sandford consortium, but is understood to not be satisfied over a number of conditions.
Seemingly pre-empting the RFU’s decision, Atlas released a statement criticising the “over-onerous terms” and, in worrying news for supporters, threatened to press ahead with the takeover without the RFU’s approval. The takeover needs to be approved by the RFU if Worcester are to take part in next season’s Championship, leaving the Warriors potentially having to join the bottom of the grassroots pyramid.
While the RFU publicly insisted that no decision has been made, it is understood the union could yet urge the administrators, Begbies Traynor, to consider rival bids – having previously identified Atlas as the preferred bidder – which in turn could bring Diamond’s consortium back into play.
The RFU has been widely criticised for its failure to act to prevent the plights of Worcester and Wasps – whose takeover is expected to be approved – while the chief executive, Bill Sweeney, was accused of being “asleep on the job” at a parliamentary inquiry and as a result, the union is heavily scrutinising the deals.
The RFU club financial viability group’s concerns over the Worcester takeover are understood to centre on commitments relating to the land around the stadium and a need to approve the disposal of that land, quick payment of rugby creditors and commitments to the women’s team. In particular, there are concerns relating to the financial position of the buyers and their ability to continue to fund the club and deliver on the business plan which includes significant development at the Sixways site.
Atlas, however, considers the conditions to be overbearing. “Since entering into exclusivity with the administrators, we have sought to work collaboratively with the RFU with a view to Worcester Warriors re-entering the Championship for the 2023-24 season,” read a statement.
“Unfortunately, it has not been possible to reach a market or institutionally acceptable, commercially viable proposition with the RFU.
“The position being taken by the RFU gives, in our view, too much control and oversight to the RFU and such control and oversight is over and above what we consider is reasonable and appropriate in the circumstances. The issues are provisions that are not only operationally restrictive, but they are oppressive and raise the spectre of shadow directorship on the part of the RFU.
“As a result, should the RFU not find the flexibility to remove the over-onerous terms they are seeking to impose on Atlas, we will have no alternative but to conclude the deal with Begbies without the approval of the RFU and without returning elite level rugby to Worcester.”
Diamond used social media to state that his consortium, along with a former club sponsor, Adam Hewitt, had a plan to take Worcester back to the top flight. He said: “I can confirm that Adam Hewitt and I are fully committed to bringing Worcester Warriors back to the Premiership. We have the plan and the funding. Give us the opportunity. We will give you the rugby. Bring it on!”
The RFU had initially set a deadline of Monday for the takeovers to be completed but this week extended that to “before Christmas”. Both clubs were suspended from the Premiership after going into administration and condemned to relegation at the end of the season but need the RFU’s approval to take part in the 2023-24 Championship.
Whether they do will affect the Premiership’s plans to restructure its league and align itself better with the second tier.