London Irish have been relegated after only winning three games this seasonBrett Lees-Smith

This weekend saw the end of the regular English Premiership season and, though the winner is yet to be decided, one thing is certain: London Irish are relegated. Indeed, it was certain for some time. Despite beating Harlequins on the opening day, the newly-promoted side finished the year with just three wins from 21 matches – 14 points behind 11th-placed Worcester. To their credit, they picked up 10 bonus points along the way, which suggests many of their defeats were narrow, but the simple fact is they were not good enough.

Yet this is becoming something of a trend. In four out of the past six seasons, the team that has come up has gone straight back down. This represents a notable change as, between 2003 and 2012, only twice did a team fail to survive at least one season in the Premiership. This, inevitably, is down to money.

As the Premiership has grown financially over recent years, so has the gap in quality between the Premiership and the Championship.  Promoted teams find it much harder to compete, reducing the quality of Premiership games. Not only are they not accustomed to the playing standard but, as the newcomers, these teams also find it harder to attract top players. This was particularly so before this season, when the team to be promoted team was only confirmed in late May due to a play-off system. This made recruitment more difficult still, as clubs couldn’t sign players until June – when many Premiership clubs have already done much of their business – as they couldn’t be certain they would, in fact, be promoted.

In four out of the past six seasons, the team that has come up has gone straight back down

These play-offs have now been scrapped and Bristol – who will return to the Premiership next season – have been able to plan well in advance, securing the signings of All Blacks Charles Piutau and John Afoa among others. This should help bridge the gap between the two leagues, but it may not be the answer. Bristol’s billionaire owner, Stephen Lansdown, puts them in a better position financially than even most Premiership clubs, but London Irish were also better-prepared than most – with state-of-the-art training facilities and a strong academy – and they struggled insurmountably. There is no guarantee that Bristol’s investment will turn into results on the pitch.

Such concerns have led to discussions about whether relegation should continue. In March it seemed almost certain the league would be ring-fenced but, a month later, the clubs had again changed their minds and have said that promotion/relegation will continue. This apparent indecisiveness suggests we may not have heard the last of it. So, what should be done?

Ring-fencing?

The main idea put-forward is ring-fencing the league – temporarily or permanently. The Pro14 and Super Rugby both do not have relegation and, given the success of the Irish sides in the Champions Cup and internationally this season, many believe this is the way forward. The argument is that, without the spectre of relegation, teams will play more freely and will not be afraid to blood young talent, leading to a higher standard of rugby and better player development. Equally, Directors of Rugby would be more inclined to give their star players much-needed rest and English clubs might feel they could put more resources into Europe. Teams could invest without players fearing relegation, and plan ahead more easily. If the standard rose, the league would become more attractive which could potentially bring financial benefits both in terms of gate-receipts and TV money.

However, I would quickly point out that the average standard of the Pro14 is not that good, and Super Rugby is not as exciting as it is due to no fear of relegation, but the rugby-playing DNA of its participants. Sure, we might see some more fringe players coming through, but this would limit the standard, and there are other ways to develop talent. There are also other ways to rest players – i.e. by enforcing it. Indeed, in a league without relegation, top clubs would still be gunning for the trophy so, in many ways, there would not be much change.

There is also the issue of who would be included. There are currently 13 clubs which are shareholders in Premier Rugby: this season’s Premiership sides plus Bristol. A league of 13 doesn’t immediately work; it would be difficult to kick a side out, and adding a 14th team would reduce the share of the other 13. This latter reason is, I suspect, the real reason why ring-fencing proposals have not gone ahead.

The Pro14 model?

Getting around the numbers issue could easily be done by adopting the Pro14 model: two conferences of seven teams and no relegation. It would be a bun-fight between Ealing Trailfinders and others to fill the final place, but the Pro14 has shown that it can work logistically. The teams in each conference would play home and away against each other and have one fixture against each team from the other conference in the regular season, before a play-off system decides the overall winner. This would also allow for fewer games in the season, which is arguably necessary from a welfare perspective.


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This could work but I’m not sure such a drastic change really needed. There is something exciting about the relegation battle, and it gives teams at the lower end of the table something to fight for: it is what makes the Premiership so competitive. It is also engrained into British sporting culture. Promotion and relegation exists in the lower leagues and gives teams below the Premiership something to aspire to. Why would we want to close the door on the next Exeter Chiefs?

Relegation every other year?

This is all well and good, but it is clear something needs to change. Having one team which are the whipping boys is not good for anyone and, much though rugby tries, it is not football. The lower division is simply not strong enough to support annual relegation and promotion. My proposal would be a ‘best of both worlds’: relegation/promotion from/to the Premiership every other year. This would allow promoted clubs security to invest properly and level the playing field for recruitment. Though one year may be slightly less competitive at the bottom of the table, the next would be more competitive than ever.

Of course, this would also mean a more damaging fall for the relegated side, who would find it harder to retain players. Greater investment is needed from the RFU into the Championship, to bolster the clubs’ resources, and to make it a more attractive option for foreign players, as well as English ones, looking to develop. Closing the gap with the Premiership in this way would make it a less significant drop for the relegated side which would make for greater competitiveness in the long term.

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