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Ringfencing, the Premiership and the law of unintended consequence

By Paul Smith
Action from Exeter v Worcester (PA)

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With relegation again shelved, the Gallagher Premiership will next season expand to 14 clubs.

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For followers of the Ealing Trailfinders this is big news, while the whole of Cornwall will heave a wistful sigh and wish its long-awaited stadium development project was a little further advanced.

There may well also be one or two relieved looks found on the M5 corridor between Worcester and Bath.

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Eddie Jones
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Eddie Jones

But for the vast majority of those brought up on an English team sport diet consisting of football, rugby union and cricket this lack of jeopardy in the season’s closing stages feels distinctly odd.

A COVID-19 ravaged 2020/21 season was one thing – after all relegation must be determined by on-field results rather than which club gained (or lost) most due to abandoned matches.

But this season feels very different, not least because of the thought that it prefaces a hidden agenda which has long existed somewhere in the corridors of power whereby the holders of the Premiership’s shares exclude everyone else from joining their elite club.

The debate about the relative merits of promotion and relegation and a ring-fenced Premiership has gone on for many years.

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Proponents of pulling up the drawbridge point to Super Rugby, the NFL and countless other long-established and commercially successful sporting enterprises around the world.

One of these, former Saracens and Harlequins director Mark Evans, speaks persuasively and often of the investment benefits brought by removing the threat of the trapdoor.

According to this line of thinking, knee-jerk sackings and short-termism would most likely become things of the past while the no-pressure environment created means clubs concentrate on the development of young players rather than being hell-bent on survival.

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Take one look at the eye-watering losses incurred by the top 13 clubs, proponents state, then put your hand on your heart and tell us that the current system works. The truth of the matter is that professional rugby in England only survives because of the benevolence of the club owners.

And however much one or two of the Championship clubs believe they are ready – or nearly ready – for a slice of the action, in truth a glance at their crowds and infrastructure immediately reveals none would do anything other than add to the colossal debt burden.

But while these pro-ringfencing arguments all have some validity, the last two rounds of Premiership action have set a few alarm bells ringing.

During his time at the helm of Wasps, Dai Young was often heard to say that the English Premiership was statistically the tightest league in the world with an extremely high incidence of games decided by one score or less.

The idea of resting seven players for a round six game – even at the height of an injury crisis – was surely unthinkable in previous seasons, but that happened on Sunday as Young’s former club were on the wrong end of a 50-point defeat at Saracens.

The self-styled Men-in-Black put 71 on Bath a week earlier, while Leicester and Northampton have collectively put 114 points past Worcester during the last two rounds of action.

Would this have happened if relegation was still a threat? While good sides have always beaten weaker opponents, the threat of relegation meant scrapping for a try bonus point or limiting the scale of the defeat was always previously of some significance.

Qualification for the Heineken Cup will maintain the competitive tension a fair way into the Spring for two-thirds of Premiership clubs, but what of the remaining four or five?

A look at the recent history of the United Rugby Championship – where travel is admittedly a bigger issue – suggests plenty of end-of-season fixtures with little riding on them are routinely without a few resting stars.

When more games have nothing at stake, clubs will understandably focus on performing in front of their own spectators in order to keep turnstiles revolving and corporate boxes full. This will lead to fewer away wins and more one-sided games. As the Premiership seeks to grow crowds and cut losses is this a vision of the future with which it is comfortable?

County cricket moved to two divisions a generation back in order to rid itself of meaningless, drifting games which lacked intensity and as a result produced too few battle-hardened test cricketers. Two COVID-19 seasons played in conferences have recently reminded everyone why that decision was made.

For the last 20 years only England and France have seriously threatened the Southern Hemisphere big three’s grip on the World Cup – and both have leagues with relegation where players have become used to dealing with the biting tension of must-win encounters late in the season.

Only six weeks into the season, Premiership Rugby’s PR machine has felt the need to spring into action to defend itself (and its clubs) from the suggestion that no relegation has made life too comfortable for those who are under performing.

 

It may be that 2022/23 sees a return to one-up, one-down in which case the status quo will be restored.

If this isn’t the case English rugby followers may well – in time – become part of a much more commercially robust sport, but it will also be one that operates in a very different landscape.

 

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Ringfencing, the Premiership and the law of unintended consequence

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