Talk of a ringfenced Premiership ceases to quieten down. The issue remains at the forefront of English rugby’s collective consciousness, countless pundits and supporters totting up the pros and cons of such an idea. There are many of both, with telling arguments making ringfencing appear simultaneously logical and senseless. If it were to be given the go ahead, one benefit would likely be the improvement of the Premiership as a spectacle.
Matters at the foot of the table, at least, are often affected by the looming threat of relegation to the Championship and the allied prospect of a gruelling season navigating the second tier. For the supporters of a struggling side this isn’t necessarily an awful outcome; results are near guaranteed to get better, there are some pleasant ‘traditional rugby grounds’ to visit and lively atmospheres to take in, and fading hopes can be restored. I’ve certainly found the league highly palatable when watching London Irish competing there in two of the last three years. However, there are some harrowing consequences for those involved at relegated clubs.
The likelihood of a restricted income and wage budget can spell the end for individuals involved behind the scenes, as well as those on the pitch. The latter carry the weight of that knowledge every time they lock horns with an opponent during a fight to avoid relegation. Often, such pressure takes its toll on performances, stressing and straining players as they fight for precious points.
Risky plays – which often thrill and electrify crowds – suddenly seem superfluous and perhaps even foolish; why roll the dice when you can take the simple, safer option? For relegation-battlers the gravity of the situation transforms the game from one of pure joy to an intense, fretful experience. If there were no danger of demotion we would likely see an increased willingness to pull out the flashy flicks and silky skills, to try out exhilarating move that has been honed over untold hours on the training pitch.
It’s no wonder that the closing round of the Premiership campaign frequently produces some staggering scorelines. Most matters have been decided, relieving the pressure on the players. Last year both Saracens and Bath racked up over 60 points in their final fixtures of the regular season, with some similarly eye-watering results cropping up elsewhere. There is evidently a freedom of expression and a focus on scintillating attacking play, rather than an anxious concern over keeping the opposition out. Yes, defensive duties should not be entirely ignored, but an emphasis on things at the other end of the pitch – as well as on the manner in which the team unlocks the opposition door – will make the match more enjoyable as a spectacle. After all, the sport is about providing entertainment.
Against the big boys, those at the bottom too often employ a meticulous, conservative style in an attempt to grind out a result. It’s understandable, no doubt, but can make for dire viewing. Perhaps, that is not necessarily the case for the club’s supporters, but neutrals invariably prefer to see free-flowing rugby. A television audience is always going to be predominantly made up of such individuals.
Another factor that would inject excitement would be the readiness of coaches to field starlets coming through their academy system. There is currently trepidation to blood youngsters in a hostile environment, with the fear that their inexperience could potentially derail the side; however, they themselves actually tend to be fearless. It’s a marvellous sight to see developing players blossom on centre stage, showcasing their mercurial talents. Unfortunately, that concern over their proficiency at the top level regularly prevents the coaches from handing them a chance, particularly if the club’s survival is on the line.
Super Rugby is an apt comparison, franchises such as the Blues exhibiting some gripping, awe-inspiring play in spite of their lowly placing towards the lower end of the table. They don’t have that shadow hanging over them and can therefore express themselves in relaxed manner. One might say this is due to the general attitude towards rugby and how it should be played in the southern hemisphere, but it is likewise possible that such a mentality is one that has grown because of the structure of the competition.
There are undoubtedly problems regarding the removal of relegation, but this is one possible benefit that should please almost all concerned. With that being the case, maybe the proposed introduction of the relegation/promotion playoff is the best option. It would allow movement between the Premiership and Championship to continue, whilst also relieving pressure by affording clubs the knowledge that they will have a second chance to save their skins.
By Ed Alexander