Relegation freeze for Premiership Rugby?

With the Championship playoffs reaching their climax this evening, the usual debate over the promotion and relegation system has risen to prominence again, and even Sir Ian McGeechan has voiced his views this time. Guest writer Andrew Outram summarises the arguments each way – what do you think?

Kai HorstmannWorcester are likely to return to the Premiership tonight, to the detriment of Leeds Carnegie

McGeechan has called for a 14-man Premiership and a freeze on relegation for 5 year, which would see Worcester, Bristol and Leeds in the Premiership, and the Championship clubs left to fight it out for the rights to call themselves the 15th best team in England.

On the face of it, McGeechan’s comments are valid. Of the sides in the Championship playoffs, 3 of them didn’t meet the required standards to gain entry into the Premiership, whilst the promotion to and relegation from the top flight has been contested by the same 3 teams for the last four years. Exeter Chiefs have been a revelation this season, but that sort of story is a rarity.

McGeechan wants stability in the league. He and other clubs believe that the looming threat of relegation makes clubs refuse to commit long term investment. Scrolling back through the last few promotions and relegations, with the exception of Exeter, the names read uncanny familiarity.

A five-year break gives the Premiership fringe clubs a chance to consolidate, commit to long-term budgets, and build some stability into the business. At the same time, the option is there for the teams in the Championship to begin to adapt and improve their facilities to meet the required standard, and potentially build their businesses to make the step up less daunting.

Whilst this would undoubtedly be a good thing for the top flight clubs, those at the top of the Championship such as Bedford, Cornish Pirates and London Welsh may stutter. Harlequins and Northampton both went down retaining their stars and then bounced back emphatically. Their larger budgets allowed them to win the league clearly and go on to become the teams they are now, but not all teams have that luxury.

There has to be some form of competition during this period or domestic rugby below the top flight will suffer. Whilst the Championship clubs may achieve stability, and produce facilities worthy of the Premiership, for five years they will not have a club in the league with a higher calibre of player to test themselves against. In this McGeechan drew a comparison to Rugby League and believes a similar structure would make things more sustainable.

But what happens after the fifth year? The bottom team gets relegated, and the Championship playoff winner, providing they meet all the criteria, gets promoted. Does that then drop us back into the same reoccurring relegation/promotion scenario, where the same teams battle year in year out?

Surely the same problems will arise? The team that finishes bottom gets relegated and is forced to lose all their star players, and the team that gets promoted won’t commit to a larger budget because their playing squad doesn’t have the depth to be able to compete at a higher level.

The ultimate problem is the gulf in class between the Championship and the Premiership. This season has proven that our clubs can be competitive with their European counterparts, and as such the structure of the Premiership isn’t the problem.

In my view, having a freeze on promotion and relegation for any period of time isn’t the answer. It may have worked for rugby league, but look at welsh rugby beneath the Magners League. The once proud clubs aren’t what they used to be.

Restructuring does need to happen. However, it needs to happen below the Premiership. Produce a second professional league to be proud of; invest time and money into the Championship clubs, to close the gap in quality between them and the established teams in the Premiership and stability will eventually come.

What do you think? Should the Premiership close the door?

By Andrew Outram

13 thoughts on “Relegation freeze for Premiership Rugby?

  1. No way. Can’t believe this has come up after Exeter’s success this season. Professional sport is meant to be competitive in every sense. It was only at the last RWC that the relegation system was being cited as a reason that England could ground out the close games. If anything, the Premiership should be relaxing the criteria such that teams as the Cornish Pirates and Bedford can go for promotion knowing they will actually get promoted!

    1. Relegation in Rugby is a winner for Sky, to push for a end of season finale. 95% of the Championship teams cant or wont come into the Premiership. With 14 teams we can push on and have a competitive league, that will enhance skills from our younger players. Development is the key. Instead of win at any cost, stick it up the jumper. There needs to be a different mindset.

      1. Perhaps on the surface it may seem like a winner for Sky, but, as you have mentioned, take relegation out of the equation and I’m certain that there will be better rugby played. Jimmy Gopperth was very forthright in his view that without the threat of relegation the rugby that is played would be much more open and expansive. Coming from a fly half at a lowly club it definitely does mean something..

  2. A fair argument, and one with no clear answer. The problem with the current system is indeed the ambiguity that a large financial injection may lead to a large loss to the club. Most sports clubs do not make a large profit, if any, so there is no incentive to an investor if there is a risk that relegation will cause such a large financial hit. Introducing a 5yr ‘soft-close’ just exacerbates the problem in my opinion. If a club finds itself relegated in the 5th year, they face 5 long years in the lower league, a loss of revenue, potentially an expensive large stadium that they can’t fill, and loss of their top players.

    From the promotion perspective, what about this scenario. A team could win the Championship 4yrs in a row, invest heavily with a view to promotion the following year, be leading the league by a massive margin in the 5th year, then lose by 1 point in the playoff and miss out on promotion.

    If you close off the leagues entirely, then there is no incentive for lower-tier clubs, and the gulf between professional rugby and the lower leagues becomes vast. Then up-and-coming players will have to come through the youth academies at the Premiership clubs, rather than gain experience at lower league level. Therefore, if a player is not signed up to a Premiership club by the time they’re, say, 20, they have no chance of playing pro rugby.

    It’s a very difficult problem with arguments for both sides. I agree that investment in lower leagues is preferable, but with limited cash from the RFU and limited attractiveness to prospective investors, it would be difficult for the this to happen in practice.

    As McGeechan points out, rugby is a very young professional game and hence will take time to learn and build a solid format that works well for all involved.

  3. I may be a fan from the Magners League where relegation is never an issue, but a compromise option seems available…how about a playoff between the bottom AP team and the top Championship team that can get promoted? And I wouldn’t go for a 2-legged match…let it be a one-off on the Championship ground.

    These debates are always best settled on the pitch IMHO.

  4. Let’s be honest here. Apart from leicester, could any of the Premiership sides survive without their “sugar daddy”? Anyone investing in a premiership club, and expecting to see a financial return on that investment is a fool. They are, therefore, gambling from the outset, and if that gamble ultimately ends in relagation then so be it.
    Sport should be about performances on the field, and not who has the biggest stadium, or who has the biggest bank balance.
    Of course, as a Bristol supporter, I would love to see us invited into an expanded Premiership, and ring fenced for ever and a day….but ultimately I would have to admit that it would be wrong, as we aren’t good enough on the paddock. If Pirates are, they should be allowed their time in the sun!!

  5. I think the issue is not actually about whether there should be promotion and relegation – most people agree that they should.

    The Premiership entry criteria is the problem, which means that even if a club wins the Championship, they may not be promoted. The guidelines from the official site are as follows:

    “Clubs wishing to play in the Premiership must fulfil a list of criteria set down by the Professional Game Board and agreed with the RFU Championship. This covers areas such as stadia, club administration and other key roles, community development programmes, ground tenure and ground moves, facilities, medical and safety, marketing, plans to increase attendances, adherence to the squad cap and playing and contractual commitments. The purpose of the minimum criteria is to set a standard for all clubs to operate by, which all will benefit from.”

    Whilst I appreciate that there needs to be some sort of control, there must be something that can be done to ensure that it’s not just 2 or 3 clubs that can actually be promoted, and to give the others something real to play for.

  6. The Premiership criteria needs to be staggered. That a team needs to expand its stadium to 10,000 seats, beyond the average match day attendance in the Premiership anyway, represents a huge risk.

    If clubs were given the criteria of 6,000 in their first season, after which the total rose each year, then they would be more inclined to hit that mark and the Premiership could become more diverse. If they get relegated after their first year then the losses wouldn’t be so big, which is the main thing putting clubs off going for the criteria.

    I can understand why the RFU seeks sustainability in clubs, but in essence they are asking clubs to improve their facilities with no guarantee that, firstly, they will reach the Premiership and, secondly, they will stay there. Risk-averse owners will always go for the safer option.

  7. My alternative solution would be to do the following. I think the Premiership should be expanded to 18 teams so my beloved Bristol, along with other teams such as London Welsh, Cornish Pirates and Bedford are included. I suggest a similar system that is used in the Football League system. I would have three teams relegated then in the Championship the top two are promoted and then introduce a play-off system from third to sixth where you have two legged semi finals and then a one off final at Twickenham. I would also expanded the Championship by two more teams to add competition and further variety.

    The Aviva Premiership is slowly becoming what the top European soccer leagues are now merging into predictable competitions when you exactly know who will struggle, be mid-table and challenging for the league. The RFU must be more innovative and produce the extra funding needed for The Championship. Considering that there is still no sponsor for the third season of The Championship (sic) and very low profile coverage on television and the internet of this competition it does not bode well for aspiring clubs wanting to break into the gravy train that is the Premiership.

    1. Just to add that I would scrape the Anglo Welsh Cup competition as that is a waste time as supporters and clubs do not really see it as a worthwhile competition. The attendances for these games are well below half compared to league and European Cup games. Especially since the final was taken away from Twickenham and made a reserve cup competition. Then you will gain more league games and clubs will not lose revenue from the home cup games they had. You are likely to see a more visible increase in revenue due to the expansion of the top flight it self.

  8. Why not model it on the southern hemisphere competition? I don’t think anyone would argue it is a more successful system for churning out talent for the national teams. Reconfigure the whole of Europe.

    stage one of the season… club sides play it out in a national competition.

    stage two of the season… the best players selected for regional sides to play in the European equivalent of super 14 super. (admittedly there would be a lot of clubs but maybe split them into two leagues?). This guarantees all the best players see action in the top comp, you never end up with situations like Wilkinson playing for Newcastle never seeing any HEC

    stage three the best players are selected from those regions to play in the six nations. Whilst the players not quite good enough enter a lower standard European or national provincial cup.

    Also this solves the club vs country debate.

    Of course it’ll never happen because of sponsorship rights/investors etc (capitalism is a nightmare!) but its good to theorize why northern hemisphere is never as good as southern.

  9. Nick, you’re right in that the season structure could be greatly improved, and I’ve had similar thoughts about domestic, then european, then international, then tours.

    I can’t see it happening, but it would surely help the players and the clubs, and should ultimately benefit the international setup.

    It can be argued both ways of course, and I do quite like the variety in the season, when Heineken Cup weekends come along, or the Six Nations is in full swing.

  10. I don’t agree with the idea of fixed franchises because I feel they ruin sports, however I’d be willing to support a fixed franchise if it did benefit the sport in the longterm. The problem with the concept mentioned here is that whilst it has the best intentions for the future of the sport, it is unlikely that the those intentions would be achieved.

    If all of the teams that could qualify for the Aviva Premiership were promoted to that division and promotion/relegation was scrapped, what would be the benefit to the lower teams, other than the ability to go into the finals knowing they can be finish as Champions and won’t miss out on anything because of it? It’s unlikely to bring more fans to the games as there is still no chance to have real success for those teams. Without the franchise of the clubs growing, and the amount of income rising by a substantial amount, there is no chance for them to improve the condition’s of their grounds so as to qualify for a rise to the Premiership, or to attract better players to the team so as to be able to achieve promotion and maintain a Premiership status once having attained one.

    The only clubs that will benefit would be those that would be in the 14-team Premiership, as they would definitely be able to attract the fans year in, year out.

    The problem does not just exist with the Rugby Union, it’s the same in other sports leagues, take the conference below the football league for example. One of the teams in the Blue Square North that is close to where I live is Solihull Moors. With the promotion/relegation system they are unlikely to get far due to their low status within the football hierarchy and the lack of support and income that comes with their position. If promotion/relegation from the football conference to the leagues was removed the situation would only get worse, because it would be impossible to improve greatly on their position in the hierarchy. They would be unlikely to attract any more supporters and they wouldn’t be able to develop substantially so as to win promotion to the league once the promotion/relegation between divisions was reopened. Furthermore, players of a decent calibre would still not sign for them. Substitute Solihull Moors for Moseley RFC or Cornish Pirates and that is likely what you’ll see if the RFU Championship was cut off from the Aviva Premiership.

    The only way which this could potentially get better would be if the governing body was to lapse the requirements for RFU clubs’ stadiums for entry into the Premiership, as it is this that ruins the Championship play-offs and permits only a few teams to be allowed into the top tier anyway. Without a decent chance of promotion, teams like Cornish Pirates are unlikely to be able to generate enough revenue to develop their stadiums to meet said requirements anyway.

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