Why the RFU should lose the LV=Cup and reformat the Premiership

“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.

Premiership Reform

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).

To summarise:

• 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

31 thoughts on “Why the RFU should lose the LV=Cup and reformat the Premiership

  1. Good article but having worked in rugby for 16 years, splitting the League won’t work. Supporters do like the pleasure of travelling distances to Clubs – playing your local rivals is not always that attractive

    The Premiership should be ringed-fenced allowing clubs to plan for 3-5 years rather than doing the plans and having to change them because they’re in a relegation battle and unsure where they will be playing next season.

    I also fully agree with disposing of the LV= Cup but would be great to re-introduce a knockout cup competition.

    1. This split though does mean that supporters will travel to every other club, just those outside of the pool every other year rather than every year as now.

      The split I proposed is a regional one, but others are possible (re-draw the pools every other year based on finishing positions to equalise them for example)

      1. The only issue with Pool matches is that you lose a few games and you’ve nothing to play for. With the current League structure and every position has an importance – leaving aside the relegation/no relegation conversation – and this has meant that the League is exciting right up until the final whistle.

        How many matches in the World Cup, European Cups. Championship Playoffs have meant absolutely nothing?

        1. I know what you are saying but with the format I propose, there is nothing to suggest that teams in 3rd to 6th in each Pool would not have everything to play for going into the last couple of games, as they have had this year.

          The teams at the bottom could also go into the last game of the season knowing a win could mean a chance at 13th place, or a loss could mean 16th place (given the play-offs against the team in the same place in the other pool).

          If you go back over Premiership history, I dare say there have been a fair number of games which have been devoid of interest towards the back end of the season too…..

          As I say, this is meant for discussion, and happily it seems to have generated some!

  2. Interesting proposal, but also not convinced about splitting into two pools. I don’t like the Super Rugby format, where not everyone plays each other twice (and some teams don’t play each other at all!), and I think it would be unfair on the fans as Jon says.

    I’d look at the season structure as a whole in the Northern Hemisphere. Why not ringfence the Premiership at 16 teams, play each other once and have it done and dusted by Christmas?

    Then we could play Heineken Cup from January to March, before a slightly delayed Six Nations and the usual Summer Tours. That would surely benefit club and international teams alike…

    1. Everyone plays everyone at least once every year in this format, which is crucial. In your restructuring suggestion, you would have a disparity in some teams playing 8 at home, while others play 7, which is unfair. It also reduces the amount of home games for each club, which drastically affects revenue and therefore salary cap.

      The beauty of the format I propose is it keeps the revenue streams level with the same number of Home games, plus an extra round of end of season play offs which will all sell out.

      Structure in the European and World game as a whole is a completely different ball game/kettle of fish which will take some serious wrangling to put right (every 4 years, half of the Premiership you propose would be swallowed by a World Cup for example….)

      1. I’m just not a fan of splitting the league, and travel isn’t a valid reason in a country as small as England. In Australia, they call Force v Reds a derby, even though they are in different timezones!

        And surely it’s fairer to play each team once than risk having one strong pool and one weak pool where those in the weak pool benefit massively?

  3. What problem are you trying to solve with this? I agree that there are some in the current setup, but ‘to avoid standing still’ isn’t necessarily a worthy motivator for a major restructure.

    There are likely to be pros and cons to every possible permutation, so I think a focus on the current issues in priority order might help in finding solutions.

    1. My motivations:

      To broaden the top level of the game and to give the talent at the very top of the game more game time. A country with a player pool the size of England should have 16 Top Level teams.

      To make things clear from the start of the season as to what is happening. When Wasps/Newcastle get ‘relegated’ on the last weekend of the season, they will not be able to plan for next year for another 2 weeks as they do not know whether they will be in the Premiership or the Championship.

      Ringfencing and keeping to 12 teams is another option, but I just see this as a good opportunity to get rid of the LV Cup (which I really dislike) and introduce a little variety.

  4. Personally I think that the current Premiership structure works and a closed shop could work by increasing the Premiership to 14 or 16 teams. What’s different though?

    At the moment the Top 6 teams qualify for the Heineken Cup and the bottom 6 qualify for the Amlin Challenge Cup. Why not change the qualification process for European competitions meaning that the bottom 6 clubs go into a Playoff to determine who goes into the Amlin and therefore extending the competition for those teams?

    Mark you are right that over the past Premiership seasons there have been matches which have no meaning whatsoever and that relegation was decided long before the final game of the season

  5. Agree with the point around standing still, but if you are moving it has to be in the right direction. I don’t think 16 teams in 2 pools itself will doo much to solve some of the reasons one might consider a change:
    – Too many games high on commitment but low on qulaity, skill and ultimately entertainment.
    – Costs rising, revenues not keeping pace, so not sustainable.
    – Not developing world class internationals, even though the starting point of the age group sides do so well.

    Of the 3 points I think the first one is where the real issue is. To increase gates, TV audiences and therefore sponsorship you need a product more people want to watch. We also can’t expect to be the most skillful international side if many of our main rivals play in higher skill competitions.

    I think ring fencing for ~4 years would be a good thing to take away the relegation fear factor ( after which teams could be added or replaced) and then also need some incentives, maybe tweak the points system.
    – Have to score a try as well as be within 7 to get a losing bonus point.
    – Only 3 points for a win without a try.
    Maybe get some financial incentives (RFU share the wealth) with a cash award to teams involved in the game of the week.

    We may be able to support a 14 or 16 team comp long term but I would prefer to see the focus on increasing quality first before quantity.

  6. I think this system is actually ideal in terms of moving rugby into the future. Ringfencing the season into blocks of fixtures as someone proposed would inevitably mean that certain key players are completely rested. For example if the premiership was before christmas, international players may be completely rested for this period, or play a handful of games, then they would come back in for the heineken cup and onto the international stage. Equally, playing a final at Christmas would be a bit dull, part of the joy of the Twickenham final is that it is usually played in moderate to good conditions and gets the best out of the crowd.

    Moreover, if the heineken cup was played back to back then it would lose some of the romance and excitement that it brings. Heineken cup weekends are some of the best on the sporting calendar and help to break up the season not just for fans but for players as well. Also if a team does not come through their group, then their season is cut short completely giving the fans nothing else to look forward to.

    The playing home and away is part and parcel with sport in general, how often to people say that a side won’t win a grand slam in a certain year because they have 3 very tough away games and only two at home and yet then end up producing results?

    This system would also provide a platform for clubs to experiment with young players and give them opportunities and not just in nothing games or against opposition of a similar stature as seen in the LV. I think we need to seriously consider why New the SANZAR nations are able to bring through young players to well without damaging their confidence. This may also stop clubs in lower leagues putting themselves into financial ruin, trying to get into the premiership as quickly as possible.

    This model would equally invite more sponsorship and wealthier owners as they would be protected from dropping into the Championship and losing a large chunk of revenue.

    One could also look to reintroduce exhibition matches or bring back the regional competition where a round robin format could be played with the best players from each region. Now that would attract a crowd.

    I am all for such structural changes, and so long as clubs in the Championship still have an incentive to do well, as would be the case with licensing reviews, then it would be beneficial all round.

  7. I certainly agree with ditching the LV cup – seems to be fairly disregarded by most teams these days and just takes up resource and tires players. Players seem not to like it as well.

    I know the argument for it is that it is a good development tournament but what about the premiership ‘A’ league – saw Quins A v. Northampton Wanderers the other night and it was a cracking game with real commitment and flair from both sides. I’d love to attend more Wanderers games in the future but they tend to play at funny times like Tuesday evenings. If it could be formalised, it could be used as the development tournament it’s surely supposed to be?

    I think the objective of any restructure needs to be getting the number of fixtures down, as current injury levels are unacceptable and too many games lead to fatigue and early burnout. As an example, Saints’ loss in the HC final last year can be attributed to player fatigue – Brian Mujati and Soane Tonga’uiha both played in 34 games each throughout the season.

    1. It appears that some of the ‘A’ Team games have been high in quality and entertainment this year, and this adds fuel to my argument really, as shouldn’t these players be benefitting from the experience of big games already at the relatively early stage of their career, rather than being hidden away on Monday nights in front of 500 or so? Spreading the player load across 16 clubs would provide ample opportunity for that.

      1. I don’t think having 16 clubs will mean the big boys suddenly want want less depth in the squads (international cover, injury cover, some rotation). We may be able to grow to 14 or 16 in the future, but would prefer to see us fix the quality first and have 12 financially secure clubs before we add more. It’s pure conjecture but I suspect some of the A games or good spectacles are because the teams are taking to the field to play positive rugby, not to try to grind out a win. If ring fencing the 12 as is means more teams go out to play positive rugby, whilst growing their busineses then I would like to see us try that first.

  8. I agree with your first point about the LV Cup, which is a waste of time and money for supporters and surely clubs?!.

    You have an interesting idea about reforming the Premiership, I think a closed shop is a bad idea due to the amount of lower league clubs who have ambitions for bigger things (ie Jersey, London Scottish, and Coventry). I would change the structure slightly. I would expand the Premiership to only 14 teams, not 16, from this I would introduce a two up and two down system which is similar to Soccer.Two are relegated from the Premiership and then the 1st placed team in The Championship would go up automatically. From 2nd to 5th placed teams would go through a play off of a two legged semi final and then a one off final to be promoted. This would encourage more variation of teams coming into the Premiership and make it less of a closed shop.

    With the two teams coming up they should have a year’s grace to get there ground into order, with the money from the Premiership there should be made to invest a maximum of there income they receive from the RFU/League to improve the Stadium infrastructure. If that does not happen, then impose a 10 points deduction the following season, even if they are relegated. Harsh but should really get clubs more prepared in the overall scheme of things.

    The way the Premiership is today it is a default closed shop, encouraging more competition and variety will better for the Sport in the long term and not go stale as you can see with the attendances in the Super 15. The product on show looks great but people are not going to the grounds and that is even for the national cup competitions.

    1. I take your point about a closed shop being bad for Championship clubs not involved initially, but actually I think it can be positive for them. It gives them a defined period during which they can focus on building towards being ready for a possible licence award when the issuing of licences comes up.

      They would have a 4 year period to provide evidence of on-field performance in the Championship, the ground facilities to host Premiership games, off-field support and good club management and produce a 4-year plan which shows they are a justifiable addition to the competition.

  9. This type of league system was mentioned by Rob Andrew about 8 years ago, and was ridiculed at the time. The promotion/relegation is a farce. Have the system of the Super 15, there rugby isnt too bad! Then clubs and players can develop at a pace that would benefit the rugby in the league, and a type of rugby that would bring more fans to the grounds. Attacking rugby has gone by the by but with the right impetus can comeback to the league.

    Ring fence the league, protect club investments and lets move on.

    1. The Super 15 used to be Super 12, then Super 14. It has evolved over time which is my point.

      Ringfencing at 12 is I feel a little short of the mark. 14 is not practical, as a 26 game League season is too long and Pools of 7 is not really feasible either.

      I don’t recall Andrew’s suggestion being ridiculed, but as much of what he says is ridiculed in many quarters, that does not surprise me. I do though think that times have moved on and other competitions have moved on in the meantime (Celtic League to Rabobank; Top 12 to Top 14 with amended play-offs) while the Premiership has plodded on.

  10. Completely agree about the LV-cup

    I think this is a cracking idea, Super rugby is a bad example, as a basketball and ice hockey fan I know the NBA and NHL both adopt this format, I believe the NFL and World series do as well. These are all very successful events.

    PLay off rugby is essential for producing the intensity of the HC matches and more similar to international level.

    The big thing with the security of no relegation is that it will be easier to attract investment.

    A well organized amatuer structure should be thriving under this league in order to feed the major clubs.

    Good article and good idea

  11. Definetly go with the first idea. Scrap the Anglo-welsh cup but have just an english cup.

    Take the 12 premiership teams and then the top four from the championship qualify for the english cup.

    However this would mean final standings from the previous season with regards to the following seasons qualification.

    1-11 in the premiership.

    The relegated team and the Promoted team.

    Then the other three semi-finalists.

    Overall the top 16 teams in the country split into four pools of four.

    The top two in each pool qualify for quarter finals and then semis and then the final to be played at Twickenham.

    So if we go with last seasons placings:

    1-11 from the premiership

    Leeds and Worcester

    Bedford Blues, Cornish Pirates, London Welsh

    1. Not really what I am suggesting. I think the Cup should go completely, not be remodelled. If you want to keep it, then keep it but for teams who are not involved in the suggested “licenced” Premiership.

      1. I was saying that if you had to pick one of the two ideas I would just scrap it.

        The remodelling was supposed to be a seperate suggestion. Sorry I should have made that clear.

  12. I think the cup is a waste as well however, Squad size and depth is key to success in domestic and european competition so I do not think the LV-cup is the reason for clubs fighting the salary cap. The majority of the players that get game time in the LV are usually academy or development players on £20k or less anually.
    I think 16 teams is too large for a domestic league and fans would not be happy with that pool system. It means that for example, a team which does not have the financial clout or players available to them to compete week in week out up north, would have to, at some point in the four years, travel down south to say play Saracens away. With no return fixture most clubs would see that as totally unfair that they lose their home advantage against certain teams.
    Now, their are also more pro clubs in the south of the country than the north. That means that surely Leicester and Northampton would be in the northern pool. The other two top teams in the premiership, Quins and Sarries would be in the southern pool. No club is ever going to agree to a system where they could lose two of their biggest home fixtures which sell tickets and promote the club.
    I do like the ring fencing and license idea, I think relegation is killing the English game and stifling our talent development. I would propose 14 teams with licenses for 4 years, these licenses would then be reviewed post world cup. That way the RFU would be able to see which areas of the country would prosper from having a licensed team and the licenses would be allocated accordingly. This would prevent a north/south divide which we can already see happening ( I live in Newcastle, our next closest premiership club is Sale, roughly a 3 or 4 hour drive away). Each team plays every other team home and away and the top 4 or 6 teams could then compete in knock-out rugby.
    There are more benefits to the english game than just player development through ring fencing our premier competition. There is much talk at the moment about the development of english coaches and how to be more succesful they must look abroad for experience. If the premiership was a competition which did not feature relegation, coaches would be able to build teams around attacking structures, as opposed to the forward and defense orientated game plans we currently see being implemented at the weekend. This would allow English coaches to develop young, exciting teams that play with flair and tempo, this being due to the fact that the pressure to produce results which comes with relegation would be eradicated.
    All in all I do think the English game is behind, which is hard to believe when you think Rugby has been around in England longer than any other country (thanks Web Ellis…allegedly of course) and we have the greatest financial resources available to our governing body. So why is it taking so long for us to develop a system which benefits the domestic and national teams and would make the majority of English teams a force in Europe again.
    For some of those old timers that are opposed to change at the RFU their time may be up. “If it is’nt broken don’t fix it.” I think the owner went blind a long time ago.

    1. Clearly a well-considered post, so thanks for that. I would say though, that in order to fit in my thoughts into a readable length piece, I had to make sweeping generalisations and could not go into all the detail I wanted to.

      I think if you want a single League, 14 teams is too many. 26 games plus play-offs is what they have in France, and they are already complaining about the wear and tear on their players.

      My proposal was a 4 year licence, with the Pools fixed for 2 years, which means that the 4 teams you play at home one year, you play away the next year (and vice versa). The make-up of the Pools, as I keep saying in comments to posts, is irrelevant really, and I used geography when I could have used random selection, a seeding system, or a combination of these. Your point relating to teams missing out on “big draws” is somewhat irrelevant for me, as I would be expecting licenced clubs to be a draw for their catchment area, whoever the opposition may be. They still have 11 home games and 11 away games as they have now (plus any play-off action).

      My final point surrounding fixtures is this. I would have the first 7 games of the season against teams of the same pool, followed by the eight cross-pool games in the middle, then the return fixtures against the same Pool at the end, which pretty much guarantees some crucial head-to-head confrontations come the end of the league programme.

      Enjoying the discussion.

      1. If we do lose the LV cup I think we could go to 14 teams before the need to split into conferences. Player burnout could be managed, for example, by enforcing rules for max starts/mins per league player in similar way to the internationals. For a move to 16 teams to be viable now broadcasters and sponsors would need to fork out an additional 33% to avoid the diluting revenues for the other clubs. 4 additional teams would need £40m+ of additional total revenue (Tigers income is ~£20m for a small profit) so I would only want to add when we have 12 financially stable clubs and not before. I would be very suprised if the additional revenue could be realised at the moment, so start with 12 ring fenced, improve the quality and therefore the value of the brand, then evaluate proposals for addition to league when broadcast rights are up for renewal.

  13. Hang on a minute, so Tigers don’t get to play Bath, Wasps, Quins and so many of our old foes, let alone the new rising stars of Exeter? Where is the fun in that?

    1. They play them once if you read fully, but again I stress, I split it geographically, but they could be split any way.

  14. Its definitely a tough nut to crack. The main focus for me would be to get the franchises spread evenly across England. This would benefit the national team by ensuring there was an even level of exposure across the country to all fans and amateur players. Australia did it and they produced WIll Genia and James O’Connor from similar set ups.

  15. I think this post has real merit, although I have to say I cringed at the use of the quotes! Scrapping the cup is a must, and I like the fenced off approach to the league. Super League seems to be stronger from the license structure, although there will always be teething problems with things like finance (the Crusaders going under), but with Wasps in the pickle they are it seems to be a sport wide thing. I actually really like to pool system you’ve come up with, it seems very similar to the NBA and NFL systems. The fact that teams ‘miss out’ on playing rivals twice a year is irrelevant because teams can currently get relegated and miss out on the games that way. Take Saints for example, the fact that the Tigers derby was missed when they were relegated made that first one back extra special. Perhaps a once a year derby would add extra spice to the game. I like the proposal, but the hardest job will be convincing the traditionalists who are only just coming round to play off rugby. If it’s marketed in the right way it could be a huge success. Perhaps you could have an annual drawing of the pools where the teams are pulled out of a hat at the start of a season – that would certainly start the season with a bit of drama.

  16. I think this is a good thought-provoking article but don’t agree with the proposal for a ring-fenced Premiership, no matter what format it takes.

    The gate for promotion is already too narrow, with only at most one side able to take a Premiership place. At least we have six or eight teams in contention during the season, and several of these believe that they could step up. A big investment in players and facilities is needed to make promotion feasible. That puts huge financial risk on any side that wishes to try for it, and all of the season’s investment can be thrown away by a bad decision on or off the pitch.

    In my view it would be better to make two places available, with maybe one automatic and one subject to play-off. That way, a club that’s been demoted would have a fair shot at regaining its place, and risks would be cut a little for all clubs in the Championship that wish to bid for promotion. The effect over a number of seasons should be that the standards in the Championship would improve, rather than building a huge gulf between the first and second tier of English Rugby which would be created by the ring fence.

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