Premiership Rugby clubs are to be asked to replace their academy system with a network of six “world class regional hubs” as part of a radical plan to overhaul the development pathway in England, Telegraph Sport can reveal.
The move, praised as “the most significant innovation since the move to professionalism,” is one of the foundation stones of the new blueprint to remodel the Championship, drawn up by Ed Griffiths, the former Saracens chief executive.
Details emerged last week of the proposal to restructure the Championship, with a recommendation that the 12-team division be split into into a northern and southern conference, with promotion to the Premiership based on agreed criteria between the leagues rather than a first-past-the-post format.
However it is understood that the proposed new structure would also see the 13 Premiership academies replaced by six regional centres based at universities across the country and linked to two clubs in a modelled Championship.
Premiership clubs would then be able to select the best young English talent through an American-style draft each December and give them three-year contracts.
The 76-page proposal, which has been seen by Telegraph Sport, forecasts that Premiership clubs would save between £600,000 to £900,000 by closing their academies with the Championship clubs meeting the costs of providing the coaching, strength and conditioning and medical staff at the six hubs.
Players would be guaranteed around 30 competitive games per season and after one year would be eligible for the draft system in which each Premiership club would be given four picks from a pool of 60 players.
Griffiths, who has already met with Bill Sweeney, the Rugby Football Union chief executive, and the professional rugby director, Conor O’Shea, is to make a formal presentation to the Premiership clubs next month after a series of informal discussions.
He is also exploring interest from broadcasters, sponsors and universities with the aim of establishing the new academies by the start of the 2021 season.
“This proposal tries to primarily find a purpose and a role for a sustainable Championship but what it also tries to do is to harness all the resources available to the game into a more streamlined, integrated pathway for younger players,” Griffiths told Telegraph Sport.
“The plan for the new pathway, which would remain under RFU control, would harness universities’ facilities in a hub that would include other educational establishments and crucially Championship clubs, because Championship clubs can provide game time.
“There are many failings of the current system but the main one is that the best young players in the country in the Premiership academies spend too much time holding tackle bags and the A League, which I understand is not going to take place next season, has been a pretty poor competition.
“Young players in this structure would get world-class rugby coaching in six regional academies, they would get their parallel education and training from universities and associated educational institutions and they would get their game time with the Championship clubs.
“That to me is a streamlined, integrated solution where everyone in the game is working together to provide the youngster the best opportunity.”
Player welfare is also central to the vision, which has the working title TEC – The English Championship, with a comprehensive programme outlined with “game-leading” regulations including concussion protocols, use of painkillers, rest periods and workload monitoring.
“At some point the game is going to have to get serious about protecting players,” Griffiths added. “This will go further on player welfare than any other league in the world at the moment”
Griffiths, backed unanimously at a meeting of the Championship clubs last Wednesday to explore a new arrangement, acknowledges however that persuading the clubs to give up their academies will not be an easy task.
“We have not ploughed all this money into our academy to hand it over to the Championship,” said one source.
The estimated cost of running the new Championship model, including funding player salaries and the new academies, is £15.6 million in the first year, which would require significant investment from both the RFU and Premiership Rugby on top of broadcasting and sponsorship revenues. Griffiths expects the requirement for external funding to reduce year-on-year.
“The challenge is to persuade people to change,” said Griffiths. “Change is always viewed with suspicion and ulterior motives but I genuinely think this is a win for everybody – the RFU, the Premiership clubs, the Championship and younger players.”