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RFU confirms 14-team Premiership expansion plan with no relegation until 2024

By Liam Heagney

Trending on RugbyPass

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The RFU council have approved plans to expand the Gallagher Premiership to 14 teams for the 2022/23 season with relegation off the table until the end of the 2023/24 season when the bottom side in the 14-team top-flight will play off against the winners of the Championship. 

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This moratorium on relegation from the Premiership was initially introduced for the recently finished 2020/21 season. It was known earlier this year in February that there would be no relegation for bottom club Worcester with the authorities instead deciding on a 13-team league for next season that will include the newly promoted Saracens, who easily defeated Ealing Trailfinders in a two-legged final.  

Now the plan is to increase the top flight to 14 teams by accommodating the winners of the 2021/22 Championship and there will be no chance of relegation until the end of the second season when a playoff between the bottom of the Premiership and top of the Championship is introduced.   

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Following consultation between Premiership Rugby and their clubs, Championship clubs, The RPA, RFU board and RFU council, the changes that will now be introduced include:

  • The expansion of the Premiership to 14 clubs at the end of the 2021/22 season through the promotion (subject to meeting the required minimum standards) of the winner of the Championship, while supporting player welfare by maintaining the maximum gameplay limits and guaranteed rest periods.

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  • Revised minimum standards criteria for clubs wishing to be promoted to the Premiership with wider game benefits such as financial sustainability, governance, player welfare, stadium facilities, medical provisions, safeguarding and community plans.
  • A 2022/23 season in which no side will be relegated from or promoted to the new 14-team Premiership, allowing clubs to plan with greater certainty and supporting the recently promoted clubs in making the transition between leagues.
  • A play-off in the 2023/24 season between the club finishing bottom of the Premiership and the winner of the Championship (subject to that club meeting the required minimum standards), with the result to decide which club plays in the Premiership during the following season.
  • From August 2024, the intention is to move to a position where there is a mandatory England Qualified Players (EQPs) system under which Premiership clubs must have a minimum of 15 EQPs in each match-day squad and the end of the foreign player rule to provide better England player development opportunities while giving greater flexibility for Premiership clubs to select non-EQP players of any nationality.  There is further work to do to agree on the detail of this subject to a new Professional Game Agreement (PGA) and introduction into regulation.
  • Increased preparation time for the England men’s squad ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup as a result of an earlier end to the Premiership season in May 2023.
  • A commitment by the RFU and PRL to maintain current levels of funding to the Championship until the end of the PGA in 2024, providing a greater level of certainty for member clubs. Changes after season 2023/24 will be subject to the agreement of a new PGA and the approval of the RFU Council.
  • Unless Council agrees otherwise, from season 2024/25 promotion and relegation between the Premiership and Championship will revert to being on an annual one up, one down basis.

RFU president Jeff Blackett said: “Council has carefully considered how to ensure a healthy professional game to support successful winning England teams that generate income to support the game at all levels while maintaining the integrity of future league structures. The changes will undoubtedly benefit the game of rugby in England as we recover from the effects of the pandemic.

This is not ring-fencing the Premiership as some have suggested. In three of the four seasons covered by this and our previous decision, a Championship club will have the opportunity to be promoted. Council has control of what happens thereafter and is committed to maintaining the integrity of the league structure by ensuring that access to the Premiership will be retained in the future.”

An RFU statement continued: “The financial impact of Covid has led to a greater focus on the financial model of professional rugby clubs and the need to find a more sustainable solution to address financial losses while growing the game. In 2017 the collective losses across PRL clubs exceeded £40million, in 2018 this rose to £50m, with further significant losses caused by Covid.

“The extent of the financial disruption to the Premiership Clubs was such that they were required to obtain £88 million in loans through the Government’s winter sports survival package. Premiership rugby clubs are reliant on owners continuing to fund operational costs in the face of mounting losses. The fear of relegation and its significant economic consequences has in the past lead to short-term investment, further adding to losses. This is unsustainable and has been exacerbated by Covid.

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“Relegation from the Premiership costs a club at least £5m which has a very material effect on the ability of that club to finance its operations and has a significant impact on long term commercial partnerships. Over the past 17 years, 14 teams that have been relegated from the Premiership have been immediately promoted the following season. The only years when this didn’t happen were 2009/10 (Bristol/Exeter), 2011/12 (Leeds/London Welsh), and 2015/16 (London Welsh/Bristol). This trend has further strengthened in recent years with eight teams over the past nine seasons winning immediate re-promotion.

“London Welsh became insolvent chasing the Premiership ambition. Exeter is the only club from outside the Premiership in twelve years that has successfully been promoted to the Premiership and maintained its position there. Everyone across the game would like to encourage more Exeter examples and avoid another London Welsh situation that significantly damaged that club.

“The financial and performance gap between Gallagher Premiership Rugby and Greene King IPA Championship rugby is significant. Despite funding to the Championship increasing by 67 per cent to its peak in 2016/17, a non-PRL shareholding team has not been promoted to the Premiership since 2014, that team was relegated the following season.”

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RFU confirms 14-team Premiership expansion plan with no relegation until 2024

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