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'That is why the football one has created a bit of a furore': Exeter wade into Super League debate and its relevance for rugby

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Getty Images)

Exeter boss Rob Baxter has given his take on the hop topic that is dominating the sports headlines in England this week, the plan to create a breakaway European Super League that will contain six English football clubs whose long-term participation would be guaranteed as there would be no relegation.


Ring-fencing is something close to the heart of Baxter because if the top-flight in English rugby was a closed shop, Exeter would never have made the ascent for the first time in 2010 and gone on since then to twice win the Premiership title along with becoming last year’s European champions.

Exeter travel to Bristol this Friday, a club that has had its experiences of relegation in recent times and who would have been excluded from the Premiership if the door was shut on them while they were in the second tier.

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Kurtley Beale guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload with Simon Zebo and Ryan Wilson

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Kurtley Beale guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload with Simon Zebo and Ryan Wilson

Instead, Ashton Gate will play host to the table-topping Bears taking on the second-place Chiefs, clubs whose emergence as powerhouses in the English game wasn’t foreseen five years ago and a head-to-head like this would be unable to happen if rugby had adopted the proposed European Super League format of no promotion/relegation.

“In this country, you would always say it [promotion and relegation] is very important, it has always been part of pretty much every sport in this country that there is a way of working yourself through results on the field up through the leagues. It’s massive in this country,” said Baxter at his weekly Exeter media briefing.

“But if you say is it the be-all and end-all of competitive sport you would have to say no because in America virtually you never see relegation in any of their top professional sports. It’s not as simple as saying is it the be-all and end-all or the most important part of sport because clearly it’s not.

“But at the same time it is part of British sport and one that I have said many times from a personal perspective I feel very uncomfortable about because I know what we had to go through, not just one season to get promoted to the top league but how we had to work our way through the league structure over a number of seasons. I know everyone in Exeter is in favour of some form of promotion and relegation to remain in the game.


I don’t know how much crossover there is (between football and rugby) if I am honest with you. In reality, there is such a different scenario happening at the moment in football Manchester United, for example, are owned by American people whose only experience of sport outside of United would have been in a closed shop franchise system, no promotion, no relegation.

“For them, the whole scenario is completely different to how we would look at it at Exeter as a members club that has been promoted through a league structure and the sums of money that are being talked about are sums of money that if you have bought a Premiership football club as a business proposition and that is your first and foremost reason for running that business, not any link with football or any link with the country you are involved in.

“Then you can see how your focus is going to be on where do you get the biggest TV deal, how do you increase your revenue to the maximum level and I just think you can’t tie all sports up into one framework and think one thing suits all. I don’t think that is possible.

Asked if there had even been rumblings in rugby along the lines of what is proposed by football’s European Super League, Exeter boss Baxter continued: “There have always been little bits and pieces happening in the background over a number of years.


“I can remember maybe hearing rumours about it six, seven years ago but it is a different prospect in rugby in a lot of ways… because we have got a pretty well formulated Heineken Cup and Challenge Cup that is quite a number of games.

“Personally, would it work? Any competition would work if it is formatted correctly and it has got everyone’s support. At the end of the day if supporters and TV companies want to watch it pretty much any competition tends to work. The ones that are still in place are the ones that people want to watch on TV or by going into the games.

“Any format is possible depending on what people want to watch. Is it right or wrong? Again, I don’t think it is for any one person to say. Most structures have been put in place because they have broken away from a different league structure before, haven’t they? Which one is right and which one is wrong is very difficult to say.

“A lot of the time it’s probably not for the incumbents to talk about. You look at ourselves: it’s a very weird thing for me to be asked questions about a potential European Super League in rugby. Maybe we would be involved because we have been towards the top end of the Premiership now for a few years but before we got to the Premiership it was only the founding clubs in the Premiership that even had a share of Premiership Rugby.

“Ten, eleven years ago we wouldn’t have even been a shareholder so we would have had no hope with it because we didn’t have a share in Premiership Rugby so no one was going to invite us into a European competition,” continued Baxter, highlighting the extent of the Exeter evolution this past decade. “Since then we have become a shareholder and now we might get asked into it. It’s all about timing and where you are and where you end up at what time.

“That is why the football one has created a bit of a furore because there is an element about it that doesn’t feel right. That is the bigger issue. It just doesn’t feel right that you can talk about a European Super League with teams that within their current league structure you wouldn’t deem as being super clubs based on results. Everyone feels uncomfortable with it in any scenario when it’s not results-driven, it’s history driven and it feels odd because our history would say we should not be anywhere near it.

“As people have said, the Premier League is in effect a breakaway league from where it was. Is Premiership Rugby a breakaway league from what it was and effectively it is, it’s a group of shareholder clubs now working within the RFU structure.

“I don’t know if it is okay for any one person to make the call on what is right or wrong. As I said, ultimately what gets proved right or wrong is the structures that stay in place are successful. It’s difficult to try and put a moral value on things because you can be as moral as you like but you have still got to be able to afford for the competition to take place. The reality is those drivers will always be there and they will be a huge part in any decision that gets made.”



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