Aviva Premiership: The Promotion and Relegation Debate


The debate around whether to ring-fence the Aviva Premiership seems to have cropped up again this week, with the idea being discussed at the RFU professional game board meeting today.

The current argument is that there are only one or two teams in the RFU Championship that would even want to be promoted to the Premiership, let alone have sufficient resources to build a squad to thrive in the top flight. Bristol are walking the league this year with huge budgets, whilst Ealing, Bedford and Nottingham make up the rest of the top four some way behind – none of whom have the stadium or budgets to play in the Premiership.

There are no playoffs this year, and the competition already seems done and dusted well before Christmas.

So without the incentive of promotion driving standards and competition in the second division, it’s only really the relegation from the Premiership that matters, and is the fear of relegation stifling ambition and performance there?

London Irish and Worcester seem to be battling it out in the basement this season, and whilst both have played some expansive rugby at times this season, will we see them tighten things up to grind out losing bonus points and the odd victory later in the year?

Does it also affect their long-term planning, with clubs reticent to invest in their playing squads and unable to attract the top talent in case they end up playing the likes of Jersey and Doncaster rather than Saracens and Leicester?

The other factor is the length of the season, since a ring-fenced Premiership would have at least one more team and possibly two, which would mean additional games to squeeze into the congested calendar. I don’t know the answer to this, but I do know that the current season structure needs addressing anyway.

I am in favour of ending relegation, whilst keeping the door slightly ajar for ambitious teams in lower leagues to join the fray via a playoff or further league expansion in future. I’d also advocate playing each team once in the season, alternating home or away each year, getting the whole competition done and dusted in consecutive weekends – I wrote a radical blueprint for a new season structure a while ago, and whilst it’s never going to happen, I still think it has merit.

Where do you stand on the promotion and relegation issue in English Rugby?

38 thoughts on “Aviva Premiership: The Promotion and Relegation Debate

  1. For me , In any competition at whatever sport lower level teams would be trying to better themselves by gaining promotion. If most of the teams in Green King are quite happy with their lot then I think quite sad! Now not having big enough grounds is another problem but could not the RFU assist with this. I would also think teams who are vying for promotion and the lucrative games that come with it could possibly be able to get much bigger sponsorship with local businesses.I know very difficult situation but these are just my thoughts.

  2. As a Falcons supporter I am, perhaps surpringly, very pro promotion / relegation. For all our seasons spent down the bottom of the premiership had relegation not been a factor, all of our games after Christmas would have been meaningless. In that we were never in with a shot of making the top 6 so without the fear of relegation what would we be playing for? I’d much prefer to be watching a tight game of rugby where winning or losing means everything over an expansive game where the result is irrelevant.

    Just my view, perhaps I’m old fashioned. Read an article in the guardian this morning about reducing the premiership to 10 teams and having a 2 up 2 down system to ease fixture congestion which seemed a reasonable idea.

  3. I like the romantisim of promotion and relegation, and the idea of a plucky team climbing the rugby tiers to greatness is a happy one.

    Except that it won’t happen again. The gap is too big. We are better off adding in Bristol, shutting the door and accepting it.

    God knows how that impacts the game frequency debate though.

  4. Scrapping promotion/relegation merely shoots development in the foot; I disagree with the idea that the Championship teams don’t want promotion – what they don’t want is promotion that cripples them (London Welsh being the main example, although lord knows why they decided to buy a completely new squad instead of trying to settle in like Exeter…).
    Fixing Pro/Rel can’t be done top-down, it needs to be bottom-up – i.e. the RFU needs to try and generate interest and investment in the Championship, to generate two meaningful tiers (although this is most definitely more easily said than done!)
    Pros are more teams, more stadiums, and more players, all capable of putting on a showpiece match and generating interest in the sport. Subsequently, more money, so more ability to compete with the bloated french market!
    And the warning if the league is closed off? Well, France already has two leagues. All that spending power because of a wider fanbase with more paying supporters. If you seal off the Premiership, you end up with finite tickets and other income streams. So you automatically consign yourself to slow decay versus the growing French rugby economy.
    If we want a successful national league structure in this country, it is by encouraging as many teams as possible that they can be Champions one day, and help develop the league’s in the lower tiers with academies etc accordingly. Broaden and deepen the interest, and more money will follow to allow more teams the chance to step up, while improving the overall national game for all involved.
    And as a final aside, the bottom half of the Celtic League was very uncompetitive at the tail-end of seasons until the recent rejig of Champions Cup spaces. If you don’t have the threat of relegation, the spur to keep playing despite a hopeless league position isn’t there – and the dead-rubber fixtures suffer accordingly.
    In short, ring-fencing is a bad idea; it’s the main weakness of the Celtic League that it has it (no fault of theirs – no choice otherwise; look where they’ve found their latest teams for crying out loud…) and the strength of the Top14 that it doesn’t. I really hope the Prem teams don’t let individual club greed get in the way and kill the game long-term by implementing it.

  5. Ring fence. Increase prem to 16 teams and split into conferences. This will reduce the number of games, increasing player welfare, and legitamise the play offs, which still come in for criticism. Abandon the A’ League and farm development players into the Championship. Make those two leagues the only leagues where players can get paid.

  6. Why is it always The Prem and Championship always spoken about its harder for National Division 1 to go into The Championship again top up bottom down, there is more of a parity between these two leagues and its just a case of being better than the bottom team.

    As for comments about no clubs being able to ever go up and compete again Ealing used to yo-yo between the two leagues, now have established and are in the upper reaches of the table.

    With my beloved Coventry sitting on top of the table I am interested to see how they would compete next season, Butts Park Arena is a good ground and is fit for Championship Rugby.

  7. Wouldn’t the likes of Northampton, Exeter and Worcester, who have made a success of the leap into the Premiership, be evidence that this is nonsense.

    I think there should be more investment for lower tier clubs, or else more support in moving to bigger stadia if they happen to gain promotion.

  8. This old chestnut keeps doing the rounds. Doing away with relegation is anti-competitive, bad for the development of the game and will stifle the futures of ambitious clubs. Nobody thought Exeter or Worcester would stay up, but they have managed to do so. There are a number of sensible suggestions floating about as to how to cut the number of fixtures to improve player welfare. Personally I would like to see something like a British League with the top English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh sides playing in three divisions and promotion and relegation from each, with National Leagues just below that level who could get into the third division of the international league through play offs. I would also like to see the ball put in straight at the scrum so that the strike against the head returns to front row play, but neither event is likely to come to pass.

  9. I used to be very much against the idea of ring-fencing but my views have changed along with the size of the playing budgets in the Premiership.

    The fact is that teams such as Ealing, Bedford, Nottingham etc can have the odd successful season and threaten to disrupt the status quo, but these days it is not sustainable, and London Welsh, not Exeter, is the most pertinent example to consider.

    Until, that is, Championship sides can muster the resources to challenge (a) the promotion, and (b) the subsequent relegation.

    Another Exeter is not likely in the foreseeable future because the Prem resources are pulling away.

    Most Prem clubs don’t make money as it is, so what chance Ealing, Nottingham, Bedford, Doncaster etc, etc

    Lastly any decision need not be forever. Things change.

  10. VJ,Andy,

    You both mention that ring-fencing would be bad for “development”.

    Do you mean the game, the players, the clubs? I cant imagine it will affect player development. The top 5 Levels are chock full of academy and AASE lads who find the optimum (or their preferred) playing levels.

    Clubs? Do clubs (perhaps Bristol and Leeds aside) really see the Championship as a limit, hindering their development?

    The game itself? Surely not. I can’t imagine that development of the game is affected one way or another. TV is what affects this (Prem games and Intls are fast becoming a different game to even National 1).

    1. ‘Development’ being the long-term growth of the game in the country, which is what is needed to stay on par with France.
      Player development is certainly doing well – but you’ve just said it yourself, the game is rapidly changing in such a way to make Championship experience redundant. How do these players bridge the gap? Particularly if certain Premiership squads keep going down the ‘football transfer’ route and parachuting big-bucks ‘stars’ into their ranks? Its far from ideal.
      As for Championship squads feeling that they are happy where they are, I maintain that that is born of realism in their current position. If they suddenly had a bigger stadium, a healthy academy, and more money rolling in to keep developing the club in general, I am certain they would stop aiming for just a good outing in the Championship every season…
      As for TV, you’re right that the TV money is not going to be dented by ring-fencing unduly. But it’s closed-minded to be happy with just that, when it could be so much bigger. In France, they have two televised leagues, with plenty of spectator cash rolling in from a far larger number of teams. Sponsors access more people, TV providers make more money, thus there is more to splash around for TV rights, and thus the leagues are rolling in it. And because it is so wealthy, more investors of a non-TV persuasion are prepared to invest as there is lower risk, and higher return, from doing so.
      With this in mind, a ringfenced league of 12-14 teams is missing out in the short-term, and CANNOT COMPETE in the long-term; fewer teams mean fewer fans, fewer billboards, less relevance across the country in general so less passive interest. Advertisers make less cash, so invest less cash. Higher risk, less reward.
      If football sums are anything to go by, the money is set to get bigger for a fair while yet, and by the time it in any way levels out, the Aviva would be irrefutably the poor man’s rugby competition compared to the Top 14.

      1. ‘On par with france’ why on earth would we want to do that have you not seen the sorry state of there national team. Money is not everything they are testament to that !

        1. Firstly, the French national game struggles mainly because at the turn of professionalism, the clubs got the control, not the national union. In England, the opposite happened. So the last thing that we want here is for the clubs to get that level of control – and they certainly want that, make no mistake.
          Secondly, this is not about replicating; it’s about being in a position to avoid big money drawing the talent away – it’s a vital layer of defence. If you have equal funding, you don’t have to worry about having your big names lured away by the money element. Conversely, if the money disparity is huge, then you will struggle to keep hold of anyone – as is constantly repeated, a rugby player’s career is short and they will often find themselves in a position where, to fund their own futures and that of their families, things such as loyalty to club and country have to be put on hold for a pay sabbatical somewhere that pays top dollar. South Africa is currently the perfect example, where the player drain is killing their national side.
          The last thing I want is a French national rugby situation, but that is born of other different problems too (such as the total lack of investment and opportunity in the Pacific) as much as anything else. The risk of the English leagues doing the same with the same levels of money is high, true, but that is a problem for another day. The money is still crucial for how it would protect the leagues from the same sort of poaching that is already happening elsewhere.
          Point being; if you have the money, you are defended from poaching. If you don’t, you are very open to raiding by those richer than you. Which actually holds true in most walks of life, thinking about it…

          1. VJ,

            One might argue that there is no long-term growth of the development of the game in France, only short-term success for the clubs.

            If we want to protect against the drain of English talent to the high paying French clubs (which England do better than any other country already), then surely fewer clubs (12-14) is stronger than more clubs (two divisions of 20-24 professional clubs)?

            The playing resource in England is presently as strong as it has ever been, and likely to keep growing. The problem with the English game is participation at lower levels, and clubs with more money at lower levels will definitely not help arrest this.

            1. The French model is a bad one, no question. But it is also a rich one. Even with the RFU announcing record growth today, I suspect the French game has grown more, if it follows the patterns of recent years. If that trend continues, then even if the English leagues are good at holding on now, they won’t be as good in future.
              As for fewer clubs, no I would argue it isn’t stronger. You have a finite number of spaces available on starting teams that is barely equal to the same in the French top division, so academy graduates that can’t break into their own team would no longer look to the irrelevant Championship post-ringfence, and will go to France instead. That would be a crazy loss of players who could be generating meaningful competition in the Championship instead. You’d waste all of the strong player-base that way. Furthermore, even in the age of TV, you are still not going to be able to get people in many areas excited when their nearest top club is 2hrs drive. The game will lose its influence anywhere but the area around its main teams – which again, seems a crazy way to play it.
              I maintain using the money to generate interest lower down is far better than throwing it at the top level to create a finite elitist league – after all, can you really see anyone from the Championship challenging for a ring-fencing rethink when the disparity is only going to grow in this situation?
              And I don’t mean throwing money at the clubs and hoping for the best, I mean real grass-roots development that then benefits the local teams.

              1. VJ,
                You are spot-on in noting that its the grass-roots that really needs care, attention and investment. I don’t believe that this is linked to the subject of promotion to the Premiership though.

                As for the academy players who cannot break into their senior teams, this happens today. If they slip off to a Championship team, they do not earn enough to make a living. Some will earn more at National 1 or National 2 level, but by and large if they don’t make it to the top then they have to get a “real job”. That is the harsh reality.

                For every Marcus Smith there, are another 10-15 talented, highly skilled pro academy 10’s who will never play fully professional rugby (ring-fencing or not). This is every year, in every position.

                Seeing London Irish promoted every other year (as an example) will not prevent this.

  11. Personally I’d say scrap some of the current criteria for promotion. Part of what did for London Welsh was having to head up to Oxford instead of staying at Old Deer Park. It’s a problem for Irish in Reading too. No atmosphere and fans become disconnected – but more importantly, it’s expensive. Suspect there would be a few more Championship sides keen for promotion if it didn’t mean crippling themselves by trying to fulfil non-rugby criteria.

  12. I agree with a lot of this. I feel the championship is weakened by having too few clubs wanting/able to be promoted and I think it’s damaging for the clubs constantly stuck at the bottom of the prem. However I do agree that relegation/promotion does add extra spice. I had an idea a while ago that maybe having a 3 year cycle might be better. I would expand the premiership and then only promote or relegate once every 3 years. Each year a club is awarding points based on their league position, at the end of the 3 years the team with the lowest points in the premiership releagtes while the team with the most in the championship promotes. This should give teams in the championship more time to build a stable squad before promotion and also still allow some incentive towards the end of the season for struggling teams.

  13. Whilst I don’t disagree with the fact it’s slightly anti-competitive, I’m still for ring-fencing.

    Reason being that it is just not possible to have 24 successful fully professional sides. There aren’t enough Rugby Union fans in England to financially support that many teams. By focusing the game into 12 or 14 teams professionally it will allow them to thrive. Kids coming through will support one of those and that’ll ensure they can invest in player development a lot more.

    In the future, in an England where millions of people want to watch club rugby every weekend (like it is with football) then a serious conversation can be had about a tiered league structure with promotion and relegation going on between a set of 30 or 40 professional teams.

    1. Exactly this – too many teams, not enough fans at the moment. Make the top competition better, draw in more fans, and only then look to expand.

      1. Close the door, and why will people bother investing? You can’t be the best team in the country, you don’t have the advertising access to people, so no TV rights and no investment. Therefore no development. I agree there isn’t the support at the moment, but generating that support would be killed stone-dead by ring-fencing. You can’t put one in a secure holding cell while you mend the other, they won’t survive the separation.

        1. The Championship isn’t working now, it doesn’t seem like there is much investment (no research), so something needs to change. And any ringfence can be reviewed and adjusted every few years if ambitious teams do knock on the door.

          There’s no easy answer, but I’d be in favour of trying to change something and giving it a go.

          1. Exactly that, ant ring-fenced system needs to be reviewed but rugby union in England is many years from needing more than 12 or 14 professional leagues (from a fans standpoint).

            Ring-fence, review the teams every 3 years or so and ensure that there is a top league that can fill stadiums of 25,000 plus. If there are 10 or more teams that can do that over the course of a season then clearly there’s an argument for more professional teams but we are still a long way from that.

          2. Change for change’s sake does not a solution make.
            If you close the Prem off, then you signal to investors that there is no point whatsoever in investing in the Championship. It becomes a conscious decision to say ‘We feel we are large enough; we do not need to grow the professional game in this country further’. It is a massively negative, short-sighted, and economically inept way of trying to generate as much investor interest as possible. And it will make the situation in the Championship subsequently worse than it is now.
            It also will mean that an irreparable gap will develop, with the one side getting all the cash, while the other is starved even of academy players (why would they play in a league which no longer simulates the top league at all? Where’s the relevance?) Point being, no Championship side is likely to bridge the gap once it is made. And I do not believe in any way that this is a good thing.
            Additionally, you will end up with teams in the Prem who can barely move for condensed investor expectations, and the pressure on the teams to always deliver will see unending pressure on player welfare and national side availability as the boardrooms are forced to make higher and higher demands on their teams.
            In my mind, ring-fencing is NOT a sustainable model, even in the relatively short-term, let alone the long-term. Answers need to be found, undoubtedly so, but not this.

            1. But VJ, no Championship side can bridge the gap as it stands today.

              Bristol is an exception because they have so much money, but even last season this wasn’t enough – hence now spending even more.

              If there were more Bristols (!), then it would make sense but there are not.

              Worcester and London Irish, one of which will be in the Championship next season, are both struggling for investment today. This situation will not improve next season for one of them, and whilst one may argue that this gives opportunity to another team, the truth is that there is no other team ready, willing or able to step up.

              For the foreseeable future there is not another Exeter. It is surely the case that Exetre ascendance has added commercial pressures to all established premiership teams, but in particular the likes of London Irish, Sale & Worcester, as Exeter has an enormous catchment area of Rugby fans that the others do not.

  14. I would certainly ringfence, but not the Premiership.Instead, I would close the door at the Championship level so that in effect we would have two professional leagues from which one team would go up and another down each season.
    The door would need not be closed permanently, instead a moratorium period of say 10,15 or 20 years could be set to see whether other lower league clubs who could make the jump into professional rugby and if in sufficient numbers, a third tier could then be created .
    The object of the two tier is to see if investors would be sufficiently emboldened to plough enough money into the current Championship clubs.

    1. Interesting idea to pull up the drawbridge slightly lower down. I guess there’s still the debate over whether that’s fair to the National One teams, because arguably more of them would be able to survive in the Championship than Championship teams in the Premiership, but it’s not something I had considered.

      However, the professional game needs to become self-sustaining, rather than relying on wealthy backers to fund it. There are too many professional teams and not enough fans at the moment.

      1. Not all National League 1 teams are dead horses, Coventry regularly draw in excess of 1,500 at home games, more than some Championship sides and with bigger sides come bigger attendances.

  15. Oh dear not this old rubbish again. Nothing wrong with Promotion & Relegation.
    Ditch the Anglo Welsh, ditch the playoff Rearrange the season so that teams have rest weeks during internationals and provide sufficient funding to promoted/relegated teams to allow them to survive the season

    1. But if the promoted/relegated teams get extra funding to try and help them survive, that only widens the gap between those on the verge of Premiership quality, and those lower down the Championship.

      The Championship then becomes even more of a non-competition, which is unlikely to draw sufficient interest from fans to make it financially viable.

      1. You can not say that there’s nothing wrong with promotion and relegation. A team went bust because of it, that’s a fact. Funding for 24 professional teams is not self-sufficient for the game of rugby union in England right now so it makes no sense to try and stretch the already limited resources.

        Also, please don’t scrap the play-offs – they’re always a great way to end the season (even if they led to heartbreak as a Wasps fan last year)!

        1. London Welsh were victims of complete mismanagement by themselves and the RFU.

          They finished 4th in the league but due to the ill thought out playoff process got promoted
          RFU than reject them for promotion
          They successfully win an appeal late leaving them 3 weeks to prepare for the top flight
          They move grounds to Oxford abandoning their fan base and get next to no gate money for the season.
          They lay off the squad that got them promoted to bring in a load of expensive over ratted mercs.
          They predictably get demoted and have to rebuild team from scratch without a fanbase
          or gate revenues
          They go predictably go bust justifying the RFU’s stance that they should never have been promoted in the first place

          Scrap playoffs, fund pro/rel teams properly, no problem.

  16. I have a kind of American suggestion.

    Firstly scrap The Premiership and Championship and create two leagues separated geographically:

    North & Midlands: Newcastle, Sale, Wasps, Leicester, Northampton, Worcester, Gloucester, Rotherham, Leeds, Doncaster, Nottingham and Hartpury.

    South East & South West: Exeter, Bristol, Bath, London Irish, Jersey, Cornish Pirates, Saracens, Harlequins, Ealing, Bedford, London Scottish and Richmond.

    Each division plays each other twice, top two go through to Semi’s, Winner’s to Final.

    Bottom two from each division get relegated to National League One with the top two being promoted, if one team refuses promotion then bottom two teams playoff and depending who is promoted there would be a slight shuffle of the divisions.

    I know this would eliminate some popular rivalries such as Bath V Leicester but it could be a way to spread the wealth around for the good of the game and team’s like London Irish and Bristol won’t yo-yo.

    I would welcome ideas on a cup competition. :-).

  17. I understand the argument proposing ring-fencing, but I just cannot get on board with it – firstly, it removes some of the contest of the league and just from a ‘fairness’ perspective, the best from the Championship should have the opportunity to test themselves in the premiership.

    I also do not believe that post-ringfencing, the clubs will ‘review’ the situation to potentially allow promotion/relegation when a successful enough Champ club is deemed worthy. The clubs in power will ensure they stay in power. Take a look at the 6 Nations – while expansion from 5 to 6 was possible, 6 to 7 isn’t from a ‘number of games’ perspective, but no one is going to agree to be relegated so another team (Georgia) gets a shot, mainly as who is weakest shifts year to year (although usually Italy, it has read Scotland, France, Italy, Scotland, Italy, Italy the past 6 years).

    I.e. if one year in the future, Nottingham say, make huge improvements and are deemed able to compete in the Premiership, what do they do? Bloat the numbers in the Prem or relegate someone. Bloating is unsustainable (think Super Rugby). But then who gets relegated? The bottom team that year? But what if that team just had an anomalously poor season, and another team had been bottom the previous two years? When is that team offered the chance to come back in to the Prem? The next year? Well then we are just back to promotion/relegation. Without a clear structure and fair rules to who is allowed entry to an exclusive club, the whole system falls apart. Promotion/relegation on a yearly basis is clear and straight forward. I could understand moving to a two-year cycle, with the average worst/best over the two relegated/promoted.

    However, I know we need to sort out the Championship as it clearly is not working in the current format. The key, as people have said, is that there are not the number of supporters to make Champ clubs financially viable. For me, it requires significant investment from the RFU to help clubs upgrade facilities and invest in promoting the game to local audiences. I know it sounds cynical, and very ‘business-y’ but if they are to grow and be able to support themselves, they need to grow their audience beyond the same loyal core of fans – like with any companies that requires stuff like marketing on a scale these clubs are unable to produce.

    Something I think would help attract more spectators to the Championship is if the Prem club partnered with Champ teams to get their young stars significant exposure and game time. This used to happen a lot more than it does these days – Tom Young learning his trade at hooker at Nottingham is a recent example – but will benefit both the young players and could raise the standard of some of the rugby at the Champ clubs – it would also reduce the financial burden on them if they have 4 or 5 great talents mostly funded by a Prem club.

    The RFU needs to invest significant time and resource in overhauling the Championship to make a viable 2nd tier competition – rather than just giving up and closing up shop by ring-fencing the Prem.

  18. Premiership Academy players are loaned out to clubs from Championship down to National 2, and some selected clubs at Level 5 too.

    In most cases, it works for the boys of course, but it does not work to the benefit or sustainability of the clubs, as it encourages short-termism amongst their playing resource, and erodes sense of loyalty amongst the players.

    Not sure that this would support or argue against “ring-fencing” the Prem? I do think that thi sis a whole different subject.

    1. That’s a fair point about it encouraging short-termism – and definitely something we would want to avoid. I know that some of the academy players are loaned out, was thinking of the level slightly above, but below the first team (rather than their only exposure coming in Anglo-Welsh Cup/A-league fixtures). Aware my point is built on scratchy knowledge of this area. The only reason I mention it was as one way to help boost the Championship teams – as I think making the Championship more successful financially, and therefore potentially able to compete at Prem level, is the way to go, and that feeds into the ring fencing debate.

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