Why ringfencing could improve the Premiership as a spectacle

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

29 thoughts on “Why ringfencing could improve the Premiership as a spectacle

  1. Still very much against ring-fencing, but I agree the idea of a home-away 2-part play-off would be a great change (as it would in other leagues like the 6N).
    Would still prefer it if people invested in the second league to broaden the appeal, increase the televised matches, and generally bring the 2nd tier up to make the disparity between the leagues less – at the moment, all the emphasis is on the Prem, which is widening the gap between year-on-year. It’s not fair on all those sides with aspirations of progression to close the door, even in the short-term, as it sets the precedent and may never be reversed.
    The conversation has been about avoiding having Prem teams ruined by dropping down – I’d much rather it was switched around to ask how a Championship side can make a proper fist of the Prem instead (and how being in the Championship can be viable and fun for players and fans alike). The language employed on the topic in general I feel is too negative and isolationist.
    As a final note, I’d argue you’ll still get the same conservative play by teams trying to secure the play-offs, or (far more importantly) European games (and their lucrative payouts). You might get a more ‘devil-may-care’ sloppy approach from teams near the bottom come mid-season (which might be good viewing, might not), but the mid- and top-table teams will be just as likely to stodge as at present.

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  2. Ring fencing is good only for the ring fenced. It is to the detriment of all others outside of the fence. To state that no relegation will free teams up to play a more expansive game is speculation. In fact a plausible argument could be made for the opposite to be the case. With nothing to play for, being outside of the top 4, why would teams risk other than going through the motions til the season’s end? And I venture that injuries are of little incentive. Besides relegation threatened Bristol have played with freedom & abandon all season. A mind set thing. Also, comparing the Premiership with S Rugby is spurious. The latter is an ‘invented’, stand alone competition with nowhere to be relegated to or promoted from.

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    1. Agreed Don.
      I also take minor exception to the suggestion that it would be good for the neutral. So what? To me that is another facet of the erosion of the traditional bedrock of the game by marketing and money men. I discovered RU completely by accident and fell in love with the game for what it was (this was over twenty years ago), not because it pandered to my mindset or upbringing.
      If the dear old RFU want to to do something radical that may just be genuinely beneficial, how about centralised contracts?

  3. I am another against the ring fencing and agree with DP its very much speculation about the risk of relegation causing the lower teams to play a more conservative game. Also (without checking actual stats) my memory tells me that it is not always a case of the one coming up is straight back down (or near so) and does not have time to build. Exeter buck that trend, and Newcastle have been in the prem what 4 years now, finished in top four last year but more than likely relegated this year. Also lets face it for the past few seasons at least the battle at the bottom has been more interesting than the battle at the top with Sarries and Exeter in a different class to the chasing pack. I do however like the ideas of a relegation/promotion play off and investing more in the Championship league.

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  4. The reality is that we already have ringfencing. Its just that the 13th club able to support Premiership rugby, London Irish, are taking their turn in the Championship.
    Next season they will come up and Worcester or Newcastle will go down. Be in no doubt that they will be back up the following season, when London Irish may well be the fall guys again.
    This is just unsustainable and frankly mad.
    If the Championship had a number of sides capable of stepping up, promotion and relegation would make sense. It doesn’t. Half the teams in the Championship don’t even want to be promoted, while the rest don’t have the ground, support or finances to sustain life in the Premiership. Just look at the attendance figures. Ealing, who will probably finish 2nd in the Championship, might get 3,000 on a good day. Premiership rugby on that? Forget it.
    Lets accept reality. There are only so many clubs who can sustain Premiership rugby. There just isn’t the money or interest in the game to go beyond that, so lets bring them together, ringfence for a period, say 3 seasons, put more resources into the Championship and review after that period.
    Maintaining things as they stand isn’t really an option given the facts.

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    1. Steve, yr comment is as illinformed as it is morally bankrupt. You seem to lack soul, vision & are you a sell out for a few dollars more? Thinking like yours seems utterly lacking in forethought by your rolling over for the ‘I’m alright Jack’ brigade. What about the game’s gr&er good? People like you depress me in respect if the game’s future. ‘Reality’ is merely a euphemism for self interest. Welcome to yr world of the haves & have nots.

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      1. Bit personal Don and no actual counterpoints made to Steve’s arguments.

        “What about the game’s greater good” – what does this even mean? Can you define what the greater good is for rugby in England, how prom/Tel supports this and maybe comment on how the finances of the championship teams are irrelevant for the greater good?

        To be clear, I am a fence sitter in the relegation Vs ring-fencing debate. This season’s fight at the bottom between 4 or 5 teams has been thrilling watching. But Steve makes a valid point, we effectively have a 13 team league with one team taking a “sabbatical” each season in the championship. If we had a strong second division it would be a very different story,but at present there are not the numbers of fans needed to support a second division at that level, irrespective of the money invested. It is also debatable whether there is the talent currently available.

        Out of curiosity, does the top domestic competition in New Zealand the Mitre10 Cup have promotion and relegation? Apart from being split into two 7 team “divisions” that have it, I understood that none of the 14 teams could be relegated from the Mitre 10 competition…

        1. It is v personal Mile L. I feel strongly about the gr8er good of the game which is encapsulated in my 1st post. Accepting ‘reality’ is giving in to self serving, self interest. In rugby, as in life, we must strive to a more equitable game as we should in society. Otherwise we simply revert to rule of the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest, the haves, the have nots. We know more now, we have more knowledge & insight, so there is the opportunity to improve & expand our game, rather simply settle for the so called ‘reality’. We should strive to make a better, improved ‘reality’ whereby the ‘have nots’ can have a go @ becoming the ‘haves’. Like Exeter? Otherwise we revert to old, retrograde elitism which ultimately, is only good for the ring fenced. I think it’s called vision, forethought.. for the gr8er good.. of the game.

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  5. To use a pretty weak analogy – this argument that ring-fencing will somehow lead to more exciting free-flowing rugby is like suggesting the game shouldn’t be played in the rain.
    There will always be games that get bogged down in the mud – literally or metaphorically – and to expect every game to be a free-flowing try-fest is pretty absurd.

    Besides, to suggest this would be better for “the neutral” (whoever they are!) or even attract more support is patronising to real rugby fans. We all like to see tries but sometimes watching your team hold on to grind out a 9-6 victory can be just as rewarding.

    Everyone is right that the answer lies in improving the Championship. Over to you, RFU… [doesn’t hold breath!]

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  6. I would happily watch Championship rugby on TV. Come on Channel 5. The reality is I am a neutral on most of the rugby I watch anyway, whatever is on at the pub.

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  7. Totally oppose ring fencing. If you want to watch players chucking the ball about for half a season because there is nothing much to play for, in the name of “entertainment”, you don’t understand the huge pleasure to be gained by watching the team you support grinding out a narrow win in the mud and rain to claw themselves away from relegation. Exeter, Worcester, Newcastle and Bristol have all managed to fight their way in to the Prem and it is invidious to deny other ambitious clubs the opportunity. Reducing the Prem and the Championship to ten clubs each with two up, two down, based on a four team play off at the end of the season and generous rewards for the two promoted sides might be a viable option as it would ensure at least three strong sides competing for promotion at the top of the Championship every season. Promotion and relegation satisfies one of the primary criteria of competitive sport, namely that If you are good enough you rise to the top and if you are not, you slide to the bottom. Anything else is a charade.

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      1. About six years ago when I left the country permanently to live in Spain as I couldn’t stand the weather Acee! Twelve degrees and chucking it down here today!

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          1. I know, Acee. Flew into the East Midlands at 2am Saturday morning for an all day party and have just got back home again, where it is still raining. Fortunately recorded four games over the weekend and can watch them all tomorrow.

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    1. Slightly misleading there Andy. Since 2000 there has only been one change to the “13 teams” in the premiership. Leeds (Yorkshire Carnegie) out Exeter in. The only exception to this was a guest appearance in 2013 and 2015 by London Welsh, which ultimately led to them going into liquidation.
      Worcester, Newcastle and Bristol may have dropped out for a year or two, but have traditionally been premiership teams.

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        1. 2000-03, 2006-09, 2017, 2019
          In between times there was Leeds, exeter and London Welsh as far as I can tell.

          For the record my source is Wikipedia.

  8. According to the Gloucester Chairman at a fans forum this week, the current thinking is that the Premiership will expand to the current 13 Premiership shareholders and that there will be a two legged playoff with the winner of the Championship if they meet all of the criteria for promotion. I have a feeling that the bar is going to be set relatively high, so while we may have promotion and relegation in principle, the reality will be quite different.

    1. So that means yet another two games to the season and even more player burn out. Ring fencing, is not working in the six nations and will keep the Pacific Islands out of a world wide competition. The money men rule the game and are not about to allow proper competition to derail the gravy train.

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      1. More news today about the determination that global club games will definitely be with us before much longer. The game is becoming a pantomime and a licence to print money.

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        1. Acee, it’s not to do with panto, or a licence to print money. The game NEEDs money, particularly in the SH where it’s slowly haemorrhaging to death. The NZ Union is annually running at a loss, seeking Govt fin support. At some point (probably with advent of the W League) there won’t be any point, practically & financially, in travelling to the NH for the AI’s for expenses. Also, yr own RFU has recently made numerous redundancies. The world game needs to generate a wider audience & income in order to survive. The current model is unsustainable.

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          1. Would not argue with that Don, but I don’t see many proposals on the table that will lead to a consensus on the many issues that currently affect the game.

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              1. Sounds ok in principle Don. The question is whether they can be framed effectively enough to prevent a side effect of more bodies committed to the breakdown slowing down release of the ball, and does nothing with regard to the financial model of the game, which, as you say is unsustainable. Only clear, cohesive and united action from World Rugby with the support of the major unions and clubs can start to put the game right, but they seem determined to increase player work load and retain power for themselves.

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