This debate just doesn’t want to go away. The newly named Gallagher Premiership has been England’s elite competition since the game turned professional, and it has been full of wonder and glory and provided some sensational rugby in
But with several figures calling for the league to be ring-fenced in an effort to protect newly promoted clubs, it seems that to have become a matter of urgency that we decide the future of English rugby.
Personally, I think ring-fencing the Premiership is the worst decision possible, as it effectively kills the development of English rugby. It traps teams in the Championship who have the potential to compete amongst some of the best teams like Exeter, who wouldn’t even be in this league without promotion, which they secured in 2009 and haven’t looked back since.
Their story shows it is possible to come up and achieve the ultimate success of lifting the title, and it only took them seven years to do it which shows slow but steady progress. Statistically, most teams simply do come up to the Premiership just to go back down again such as London Irish last season. The biggest casualty of the Premiership will always be London Welsh who lost all 22 fixtures in 2014/15 and folded the following year. But the idea of ring-fencing simply stops a team worthy of competing in the Premiership like London Irish or Bedford Blues or Ealing Trailfinders from ever progressing.
Bristol Bears’ owner Steve Lansdown’s comments simply frustrate me, as suggesting the current 12 teams in the Premiership plus London Irish should be protected in a three year trial. Bristol would be paying a huge price going down again as all their development and restructuring would go to waste, but that’s the price a lot of teams have to pay and comments like the ones made by Lansdown make it seem like teams are only agreeing to ring-fencing to cover their backs when things go
To then continue forth and suggest anyone competing to come up should have the appropriate infrastructure is a bit of a kick below the belt for a lot of clubs who need the opportunity to compete in the Premiership to help develop their club’s infrastructure.
Sure, London Irish are the best prepared for an instant return with their new stadium plans helping to boost the club in a big way. But what’s stopping Bedford Blues, or Doncaster Knights, or Yorkshire Carnegie having a crack at the Premiership. Their squads might not match the likes of Harlequins or Saracens or Exeter, but some Championship clubs have a stadium that matches, if not betters their Premiership rivals, and they have the coaching quality to play in the top flight. Nottingham, Cornish Pirates and other clubs have some redevelopment to make that’s undeniable, but it’s only going to stunt that growth if they are starved of the chance to be promoted to the Premiership and benefit from the funding that would ultimately follow winning the Championship.
In my opinion, the Championship could benefit from a play-off system with the Premiership to help give more clubs the chance to come up to the elite division whilst creating more competition to stave off relegation amongst those in the bottom half of the table. Copying the format seen in Scottish football, 12th place in the Premiership would go down and be replaced by the winners of the Championship, with the runners up going against the 11th placed team in the Premiership in a two-legged fixture at both venues. The winner on aggregate would earn the last place in the Premiership. It wouldn’t hurt including the third and fourth placed finishers in the Championship either if you wanted to prolong the play-offs and give more teams a chance to fight for promotion as that would only boost the competition in the second tier, which as we all know is something it could really do with at this moment.
A bloodbath of results for someone like Ealing Trailfinders wouldn’t exactly help their growth, especially if teams like Sarries were running 70 points past them twice a season, but trapping them in the second tier is hardly going to do more good to the club either. And speaking of results, the Premiership itself would lose so much interest if it was to become ring-fenced. The competition thrives off the fight from teams in the bottom half of the table who look to scalp play-off placed teams, and it doesn’t matter what the sport is, teams who are looking to survive in an elite competition will put far more effort in than those who are comfortable at the top and coasting to the end of the season. Ring-fence the league, and what’s the point in competing when you can’t be relegated? Teams will just simply be contesting a play-off finish, and if you’re in 12th place, you’re hardly going to stand a chance of getting involved at that end.
This isn’t a matter of fading conversation, and I’m sure we’ll here the matter again soon, but the sooner we find a solution the better, and the sooner the Championship clubs find some platform to develop from the better. Unless we want a repeat of London Irish yo-yoing both leagues for the next five years and near misses for other clubs below them, then an answer has to be uncovered to help England’s top division compete with the French Top 14 or the Pro 14 and give themselves the right to call their league the most competitive. Ring-fencing only culls that idea and the clubs below the Premiership with it.