Worcester Warriors Rugby Club

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:20 pm on 22nd September 2022.

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Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland 6:20 pm, 22nd September 2022

It is a great honour to secure this debate, on an issue that is very dear to my heart. In recent weeks, Warriors fans have grown accustomed to the odd delay, and I apologise to all those who may have tuned in at 5 pm or 5.30 pm, but I hope I am able to evoke their concerns during the course of the debate. I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend Stuart Andrew for taking up his role, and look forward to his response. I am also grateful to the Clerks in the Table Office for accommodating me at the first possible opportunity after the period of mourning. Sadly, this debate is all too urgent and timely.

Worcester Warriors is a rugby club that has been at the heart of our county and community for decades, and follows in the footsteps of the Worcester rugby football club, who have played rugby union in Worcester for over 150 years. In the era of professional rugby, which roughly coincides with my adult lifetime, the club has been based at Sixways, and throughout my adult life I have been a supporter. The first game of professional rugby I ever watched was in Worcester; the club was then in North Midlands division 2, and although never a player myself, I have worn the club colours of gold and blue ever since. When I gave Worcester rugby shirts to my two nephews, then aged four and eight, they described them as their Uncle Robin suits, as they had so often seen me wearing mine. As is the case for so many other local folk, the club has provided a forum for intergenerational bonding, an arena for local pride, and a gathering space for special events.

The rise and rise of Worcester, who subsequently became the Warriors, was no accident, but the result of the vision and drive of one man: Worcester’s most successful 20th century entrepreneur and philanthropist, the late, great Cecil Duckworth. It is not possible to overstate Cecil’s contribution to our city. The boiler he first made in his garage became the prototype of the modern combi boiler and the basis for Worcester Heat Systems, now known as Worcester Bosch, the biggest private sector employer in my constituency. His endowment of the Duckworth Worcestershire Trust continues to make an enormous contribution to our local environment, and his generous support for the Acorns Children’s Hospice made its Worcester hospice a reality.

Cecil’s greatest and most prominent local legacy, however, was the rise of the Warriors. I was privileged to know Cecil and his family long before I became Worcester’s MP, and to be able to watch rugby at Sixways with him. I recall watching a pre-season friendly between Worcester and Oxford University while I was a student there, and learning that even great figures such as Cecil and his opposite number at the university rugby team, who happened to be a former head of the civil service and distinguished member of the other place, were capable of colourful language when the referee’s decision went against their team. I celebrated with him an astonishing six successive league wins and promotions as, with his support, the Warriors—as they became in 2002—moved all the way up from North Midlands division 2 to National league 1, the league just beneath the rugby premiership. I well remember the ecstatic feeling when our team, unbeaten after 26 wins in 26 matches, first won promotion to the top flight in the 2003-04 season.

Like so many fans, I experienced the pain of relegation in 2009, followed by joy at our return to the top flight in my first year as Worcester’s MP. All of this was masterminded by Cecil and his passion to see the club not just achieve, but cement, its position at the top of English rugby. When I first attended Sixways, there was one stand with a capacity of around 2,000; today we have a 12,000 capacity stadium, which is not only one of the best-equipped professional rugby stadiums in the country but a venue for key local cultural events, from concerts to the trooping of the Mercian Regiment’s colour. Quite rightly, a bust of Cecil adorns the Warriors’ stadium, and he was named life president of the club before his sad death from cancer in 2020.

While some might say that the Warriors is just a sports club, we in Worcester know it is much more than that. So many fans have spoken out about what the club means to them, and the staff and heads of department, as well as the players, have shown a spirit of togetherness in the toughest of times of which Cecil himself would be proud. I do not have time to echo all the sentiments of fans in this short debate, but so many have expressed what the clubs mean to them movingly and with real passion. I commend to the House looking at #together, #WeAreWarriors and #SaveOurWarriors on social media.

The club is also home to one of the most effective and successful community foundations in the rugby world—this is a key part of Cecil’s vision—which reaches more than 15,000 deprived and vulnerable people across the west midlands, championing accessible rugby, delivering innovative and inspiring lessons in schools, including special schools and alternative provision, using the power of rugby to build confidence and unlock opportunity. I have lost count of the number of times I have been downstairs in this place to congratulate the foundation on winning awards at the premier rugby community awards. Sadly, all this is now at risk.

The current owners of the club have brought it to the brink of financial collapse, and for all that they have claimed this is the impact of the pandemic, they have failed to maintain the trust of their employees, keep their promises to local stakeholders or set out clear plans to reassure their many creditors. Their background in property development and the various complex transactions through which they have manoeuvred parts of the club and its land have raised serious doubts about their genuine commitment to keeping professional rugby at Sixways.

The news that on 17 August the owners had been served with a winding up notice by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs led dozens of my constituents to contact me with their concerns about the future of the club. On 26 August, I convened a meeting of local MPs and council leaders from all the three south Worcestershire councils and the county to discuss the concerns about any possibility of development land being separated from the club, and the risks to the viability of the stadium and the team. We agreed a joint statement. Crucially, included in this were the leaders of Wychavon District Council, the planning authority and Worcestershire County Council, with its responsibilities for economic development. It read:

“We will do all we can to retain professional, elite rugby at Sixways and protect the extraordinary legacy of the late Cecil Duckworth and his family.

We jointly call on the current Worcester Warriors owners to act in the best interests of the club, the players, the staff, the fans and the community served by the club, including the Warriors Community Foundation. We think it is essential that the club and all of its property assets remain linked.

While we recognise that there are significant opportunities for development at the Sixways site, we believe that these need to be utilised for the purpose of sustaining the rugby club and the wider ambitions of the local sporting community.

We are all very clear that we are prepared to work supportively with potential investors to find a positive outcome for the future of Worcester Warriors.”

Since that statement was published, I am grateful to have had messages of support from Worcester’s Labour mayor, city councillors, the supporters’ trust and the president of the amateur side, WRFCWorcester Rugby Football Club. I am also grateful for the close attention that has been paid to this situation by the Rugby Football Union, Premiership Rugby Limited and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport over recent weeks and particularly for the patience of the current Secretary of State with the bombardment of messages I have been sending her ever since her appointment. Her predecessor set out to me that the sole focus of the Department has been in trying to protect the club and the future of professional rugby at Sixways—amen to that. Following our statement, local MPs were invited to meet the current owners and hear their plans; we accepted assurances that they were negotiating to sell the whole of the club together and that whatever the formal structures in place around the land, there was no intent to separate or sell of parts of it to the detriment of the club. We were told that the club was in negotiations with a number of parties and that payroll would certainly be made the following week.

The following week, the owners failed to make payroll. Staff were not paid at all on the day their wages were due and players did not receive their pay on time. That triggered players at the club to serve 14 days’ notice that their contracts had been breached, posing an existential threat to the continuation of the team and professional rugby at Sixways. On the same day, the mobile phones of the management at the club stopped working as the bills had not been paid and cars were taken from players because the leases had not been maintained. Academy players were reportedly made homeless as they lost access to their accommodation.

In the days of confusion and deep concern that followed, the players were eventually paid—late and sometimes irregularly. But together, selflessly, they decided to withdraw their notice and return to being in contract. The staff; 200 of whom are permanent full-time staff, with a further 200 part-time, were offered 65% of their wages, with the rest to follow once a deal had been secured. That has not so far been forthcoming, and I am told there are still a number of staff who have received no pay at all. It was at this stage that the five Worcestershire MPs who were free to do so put out our joint statement calling for the club to be taken into administration—I know all six of us were there in spirit. The owners fired back an angry release that stressed all the risks of administration and stated that they had had no offers of help from MPs or councils prior to our statement. The latter, I have to say, is simply a provable lie.

The owners’ case against administration was fourfold: that it would reduce the value of the club’s P share—its share of proceeds from premiership television and marketing rights—due to a call option being available to the PRL to buy it back in the event of administration; that it would leave local creditors out of pocket; that it would lead to automatic relegation from the premiership; and that it would leave season ticket holders without the value of their tickets.

Each one of those assertions is challengeable. From my own conversations with both PRL and the RFU, I know that neither the triggering of a call option on the P share, nor relegation should be considered a certainty. I urge them to do all they can in the event of an orderly administration to enable Warriors to stay in the premiership, with a points deduction if necessary, and to ensure that any new management and investors taking the club on have access to its P share. There is no reason why an administrator or new investor should not be able to honour season tickets, and local suppliers who from bitter experience have no trust in the current owners to pay their bills may stand a greater chance of recouping some of what they are owed if we have an orderly process rather than continued uncertainty and disorder.

Since that time, I am afraid that the situation off the pitch has not improved. Players have gone above and beyond to turn out and play for the club, despite the problems with their pay. Staff have moved heaven and earth to ensure that games can go ahead, meeting the challenges set by the RFU and PRL, even after wi-fi and internal emails went down, and with no support from their directors and owners. That Worcester Warriors players have scored tries against London Irish, Exeter Chiefs and Gloucester is a remarkable achievement in these most difficult circumstances. The solidarity that has been shown by each of those clubs reflects the desire of all rugby clubs to see the Warriors survive. That the University of Worcester Warriors—the ladies’ team—actually won its Allianz cup fixture against Harlequins is truly spectacular. The heroic efforts of underpaid or unpaid staff have been praised by fans of clubs across the country, but those efforts are barely acknowledged by the current owners. Instead, we have had reports of staff facing disciplinary action for daring to point out the string of broken promises that have been made to them, and of key people being mysteriously unavailable when legal or insurance documentation needed to be signed. Through all of this, the team, under the tutelage of Steve Diamond, have maintained a spirit of unity that is admirable in the extreme.

The owners told local MPs last week that they were on the brink of a deal to sell 85% of the club’s equity and that there would be new money to repay staff the proportion of wages owing and to secure all the commitments to the premiership before the end of the week. They promised staff and fans an announcement within 48 hours of the match on Sunday. Neither of those promises has been kept. Staff, fans and players are left with the lingering doubt that the owners might prefer the club to default on its rugby commitments so that expulsion from the premiership makes it easier to focus on developing the property assets away from the rugby. Such an outcome would risk making not only the Warriors but the Community Foundation, the academy, the amateur Worcester rugby football club and the Worcester Raiders football club homeless. It would be a disaster for sport in our county and a huge blow, which neither I nor my fellow Worcestershire MPs are prepared to accept.

Even after staff went above and beyond again to secure this weekend’s matches, another deadline has understandably been set by the rugby authorities for Monday. I know that staff, players and the exhausted heads of department at the club will do all they can to meet it, but I cannot be certain that they will be able to do so without the support of directors or new finance.