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'Stop talking about corporate reasons why we can't do relegation'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

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Ex-England out-half Stuart Barnes has had a pop at millionaire club owners in the relegation-free Gallagher Premiership, claiming they don’t understand the game. Unlike in France, where their promotion and relegation system is sacrosanct, stadia criteria were used in recent months to block the promotion of Championship champions Ealing to the top flight in a year where the decision had already been taken to scrap top-flight relegation due to pandemic financial concerns. 

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With no elite club set to be relegated until 2024 at the earliest, it is a situation that has ensured that this Saturday’s final round of regular fixtures in the Premiership has no consequence at the bottom of the table. Worcester, who are running 13th and last with 30 points, host twelfth place Bath who are on 33 points along with eleventh-placed Newcastle, who play away at playoff-chasing Northampton. 

Whereas these results won’t have consequences at the foot of the Premiership in England, the relegation/promotion battle in France has – in sharp contrast – gone down to the wire with Brive and Perpignan fighting it out on the last day of the season not to finish 13th in a division where the 14th-place Biarritz have already been relegated. 

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Whoever finishes 13th in France will have to play off for survival against the defeated Pro D2 finalists, a showpiece second-tier final fixture that features the unfashionable Mont-de-Marsan playing Bayonne in the decider this Sunday in Montpellier with automatic promotion the reward for the winners.  

It’s an exciting, tense finish that doesn’t exist in England where there is no Premiership relegation scheduled until summer 2024 – and even that will only be via a playoff with that year’s Championship champions.

Barnes has had enough of this protectionism and with RugbyPass columnist Andy Goode having already criticised the ring-fencing, the ex-Bath star now becomes the latest ex-England out-half to hit out at what has happened.

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Speaking during an appearance on The Ruck, the weekly Times podcast, Barnes said during a review of last Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup final in Marseille: “Having played for a small city team with a population that is not that dissimilar to La Rochelle for a decade at Bath I can tell you that the great passion at Bath was always their closeness with fans and it makes a hell of a difference.

“The other thing I feel we should also mention is Ronan O’Gara after the game was saying only eight years ago La Rochelle were in Pro D2. We have people in England who want to turn the clubs into sort of unchallenged franchises and they want to close opportunity.

“I have written so many times about what would have happened if the gate had been shut 15 years ago. There wouldn’t be an Exeter. What would have happened in France if the gate had been shut eight years ago? There wouldn’t be a La Rochelle. 

“I am not prepared to have millionaires tell rugby people which clubs have no potential to grow. They don’t know and they never will. Most of them don’t understand the game well enough.

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“We should get back to working as hard as we can be based on the French example – the fanaticism of the fans, the potential growth of the teams – that we need to get back to promotion and relegation as soon as we can and stop talking about the corporate reasons why we can’t do it. It’s a shield to hide monopolists.”

Barnes did admit that the current Championship structure isn’t the best but he offered a solution to help make the second tier a far more appetising competition. “There are not enough supporters, not enough quality at the highest level in England.

“The way to do this is to create a second division with about four or five, maybe six, of the Premiership clubs in it, and then have four of five of the best (Championship) and have a league below develop. 

“They won’t do it because they are scared to be judged on their performances on the field but if you do that you would then have more money in the Championship. At the moment I can understand broadcasters don’t want to spend money on games where 250 people are watching, it’s no good.

“At some stage we have got to say performances on the pitch matter, if you do down you go down and you have smaller leagues but they are more competitive.”

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