“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
Such were the words of Charles Darwin. Words I believe strongly in, and which prompt me to suggest that English rugby needs to change its top level Club organization to continue to provide an entertaining club competition, clubs who can compete on a European stage and clubs who can provide players to a National team which is a serious contender for Major Honours.
You may be one of those starting to read this whose initial thought is “Why change anything?” True, we’ve had a fascinating season this year, with top spot and home semi final venues still up for grabs, the relegation issue and, at least mathematically, 1 Heineken Cup Place still undecided as we enter the 22nd and Final Week”. I understand your argument, but to stand still is to die. Some of you may feel this is pretty “out there” but I believe it is something that needs discussing.
Lose the LV= Cup
In the Amateur days, the Pilkington Cup was the pinnacle of club rugby, but the League has overtaken the Cup in prominence and all the LV Cup serves to do is to give “senior” exposure to squad players. Losing the LV Cup would serve two purposes therefore. Firstly, squads could be reduced in size allowing an easier adherence to the salary cap and secondly it would allow clubs to ease the burden on senior players in terms of games played allowing the whole squad to be fresher for the bigger tournaments of League and European Cups. This is one change I would make as soon as any existing sponsorship agreements end. I suspect more people will agree with this change than the other suggested change I am about to propose for discussion.
The 12 team Premiership, with 1 relegation and 1 promotion place (if the team wishing to climb the ladder has a suitable ground) is antiquated already and needs freshening up in my opinion. The Premiership as it stands is very nearly a closed shop in everything but name, but confusion as we enter the final week of the season as to whether the team relegated will actually go down is wrong.
I propose a ringfenced system something like that which exists in Rugby League’s Super League, where a licence is given to a number of teams for a specific period of time (say 4 years). This effectively closes the shop for that period and allows teams who get into the Premiership time to build a team and club which is worthy of the competition. To do this though, I would stretch the number of teams to 16, without increasing the number of games played. How, I hear you ask? Well here’s how:
Let’s take the 12 Premiership teams currently there, along with the 4 biggest Championship clubs (based on attendance for the moment), Bristol, Bedford, Leeds, Cornish Pirates. I would split these geographically into 2 Pools of 8, and each side would play their other Pool members Home and Away, and each of the teams in the other Pool once (4 Home, 4 Away), keeping the total of 22 League games.
Pool A: Bath, Bristol, Cornish Pirates, Exeter, Gloucester, London Irish, Wasps, Worcester
Pool B: Bedford, Harlequins, Leeds, Leicester, Newcastle, Northampton, Sale, Saracens
As proved by the Heineken Cup, World Cup and Premiership Play-offs, knock-out rugby provides great drama and as such at the end of the League section, the top 4 from each Pool would compete in Cross-pool Quarter Finals (1st vs 4th, 2nd vs 3rd) and then Semi Finals and Finals to determine the finishing order of the different teams. We could also have 5th in each Pool playing off against each other for 9th place (2 legs), 6th in each Pool for 11th, etc. to allow for a full 1 to 16 ranking of the teams, which can be added up over the first three years of the licence period to show which clubs should be the ones considered for replacement by any candidates wishing to enter the competition (though I would suggest off-field performance, to include any breaching of salary cap rules for example, should also be a category for this decision).
• 16 Teams (in 2 Pools of 8)
• Local rivalries are maintained with Home and Away fixtures.
• 11 Home fixtures are guaranteed.
• Fixtures have meaning to the very end of the season.
• Knock-out QFs, SFs and Final to decide Champions
• Teams in the Top half of the Pools would play 25 games, bottom half would play 24. Less than the current League plus LV Cup totals.
• Promoted sides have an opportunity to build a side to compete at this level rather than immediately having to struggle for survival.
• The disappearance of the threat of immediate relegation also allows sides to play younger players earlier.
The combination of these two changes means a smaller squad size and more top level opportunities for players, so a situation where Flood and Ford, Hodgson and Farrell, Lamb and Myler are at the same clubs and either rotated, played out of position or warm the bench, is less likely to occur.
As I said at the very beginning, this is meant as a discussion piece. Some may agree, some may violently disagree, but I firmly believe that to sit back and enjoy the status quo is a dangerous seat to take. I started with a quote, I will end with one:
“You can’t expect to meet the challenges of today with yesterday’s tools and expect to be in business tomorrow.”
by Mark Bonsall