English rugby chiefs will be asked to support controversial plans for a 13 team Gallagher Premiership with an end to automatic relegation when they meet on September 13.
The proposal will go before the Rugby Football Union Council meeting that day and has been described by Damian Hopley, chief executive to the Rugby Players Association – which represents England’s professional players – as “the biggest decision in the history of professional rugby in England.”
The RFU Council will be presented with a plan, agreed by the Union’s professional game board, which represents the 12 Gallagher Premiership clubs, RFU and players’ union, that would mean no relegation at the end of the 2019-20 season with one team – most likely Newcastle – promoted from the Championship.
With no automatic relegation in the new regulations, the RFU would go back to the previously used system for their top flight with a play-off between the bottom club and the top team in the Championship with the victor over two legs winning Premiership status. That deals with fears the Premiership would be ring-fenced.
The most recent meeting of the Professional Game Board rubber-stamped the proposal and now it will be up to the Council to back the move. Hopley believes the proposal deals with many of the key issues, including the ability of Premiership clubs to invest in major infrastructure plans with more certainty about their place in the top flight. The arrival of private equity firm CVC, who paid more than £200m to become minority stakeholders in the professional club game in England, has changed the financial landscape and ending automatic relegation is seen as a vital move.
Hopley said: “This is the biggest decision to be made in the professional era in England and we have a very good relationship with the RFU and the clubs.
“There are ongoing discussions with the RFU, Clubs and the Championship and the decision will be with the RFU Council on September 13. The plan is for no relegation in the 19/20 season and going forward it would be a 13 team Premiership with a two-legged play-off between the bottom club and the top team in the Championship. In the 20 plus years of professional rugby, the sport hasn’t been too clever at joined-up thinking and this is the first time we have all the stakeholders aligned. While there is devil in the detail, we want to find a solution that produces viability at Premiership and Championships levels and gives players guaranteed game time.
“We want to make sure the players are protected within that new structure and with CVC coming in there is lot of excitement about where the game could go. I hope the Council understands that is a very important part of the evolution of the game in England.”
While a 13 team Gallagher Premiership is on the cards, Hopley does not expect to the abandoned World Rugby plan for a Nations Championship to unite the Hemispheres to be revived unless the players are fully integrated into the process.
He added: “I don’t see anything that is imminent to replace the World Rugby plan that failed to get enough backing. What we have seen with the demise of the idea is that you cannot just ignore the opinions of the players and ask them to just toe the line. That is at best a 20th Century attitude and at worst 19th Century. We didn’t understand how it got to the stage it reached without due process and the press release the International Rugby Players put out quoting leading players highlight this. Players from around the World who wanted to know how we had got to a point where player welfare was so far down the list.
“The fact is that the idea is dead in the water unless the players are part of the process. It is as simple as that.”
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