Relegation has been one of the most keenly debated topics in English rugby this season.
Not only has the battle at the foot of the Premiership table been one of the most spellbinding in recent history, but there has been the persistent discussion as to whether the league should become ring-fenced, scrapping relegation altogether.
This is something that has split opinion amongst fans, players and pundits, with both sides having the intention of improving the standard of the Premiership and English rugby as a whole.
Gloucester chairman Martin St Quinton recently weighed in on the debate with a different spin, suggesting a two-leg playoff between the bottom placed Premiership and the top placed Championship sides.
Of course, in terms of excitement and drama, there is no better way to drum up a following and viewing figures than a final or playoff in any sport, simply due to the very nature of what the spectacle is. This is shown at the top of the Premiership, where the final at the end of the season is a big draw, even though it has its critics. However, outside of that, it is hard to see any other positive.
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The main fault with creating a playoff is that there would be no guarantee that a side which may have performed impeccably in the Championship will be rewarded with promotion at the end of the season. Consequently, they cannot plan for the season ahead at the denouement of their current campaign, as their future will still be in the dark until the very end of the season, giving them a much smaller window of opportunity to bring in new personnel.
Bristol this season have been the embodiment of why the playoff system is flawed. The Bears are the first beneficiaries of the RFU scrapping promotion to the Premiership. Unlike this proposed system, the previous one saw the top four sides in the Championship compete in a playoff. Bristol had equally suffered at the hands of this system, as they had failed to earn promotion in the past despite topping the Championship table.
The question is whether Bristol would have been able to attract the likes of Charles Piutau, John Afoa or Harry Thacker midway through last season if their promotion was dependant on a single game at the end. They had been able to lure All Black Steven Luatua to play in the Championship during 2017/18, but it seems unlikely that a player of Piutau’s calibre would have settled for a season in England’s second tier. If they had needed to wait until the end of the season, the horse may have bolted with some of those signings, with other clubs swooping in first.
Likewise, London Irish were able in February to secure the services of British and Irish Lion Sean O’Brien for next season. It seems hard to imagine this deal would have been made if they were not very confident that they would be in the Premiership next season.
The Championship sides will not be the only ones to suffer, as the bottom-placed Premiership side would also be placed in an unsure position throughout their campaign. The purgatorial state of being placed at the bottom of the table would mean a team would not know whether they recruit for a season in the Championship or Premiership, which would require selecting different players. Although the bottom-placed Premiership side would invariably win this playoff, it puts them on the back foot for the next season, meaning they are doomed for history to repeat itself.
Finally from the fans’ perspective, although the prospect of a glorious playoff win at the end of the season is a nice thought, there is another side of the coin. Fans may equally be apathetic if they knew that all their team’s endeavours may prove to be futile come the end of the season.
Many may feel discouraged to follow a team if they know their hopes may be dashed at the final hurdle. The system works in English football, but that is when two teams are already guaranteed to go up, and then teams battle for the remaining place. To put an entire league in a position where one team may or may not go up is just unfair.
Whether relegation stays or is scrapped altogether is one debate, but the playoff system has already had its day in the Championship and we are better off without it. The support that Bristol have had this season and the rugby that they have played is testament to the abolition of the playoff to go up, and it would not make sense to replace it with another flawed model.
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