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'We've got ourselves on a pathway that feels a little wrong to me'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

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Exeter boss Rob Baxter has outlined his ongoing unease with the pathway that Premiership Rugby have embarked on, looking to increase the size of the top-flight to 14 clubs only to have that expansion stalled last week by the RFU decision not to allow Ealing or Doncaster to be promoted at the end of this season. The twelve-team format had been in existence since the Premiership was first inaugurated way back in 1997/98 and it allowed for one team to be relegated and replaced by another team coming up from the Championship. 

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This structure was how Exeter under Baxter won their way into the top-flight for the first time in 2010 with a playoff win over Bristol and they have since gone on to become a powerhouse of the English club game, winning a first Premiership title in 2017 and achieving a remarkable league/European Cup double in 2020. 

However, promotion from the second tier has been made harder in recent years as clubs must now meet certain criteria and lack of facilities was where the hopes of the Trailfinders and the Knights were dashed last week. 

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It means there will now be no promotion to the Premiership next season to make it an expanded 14-team as was planned, while the second-tier has also been rocked by speculation that Cornish Pirates will have its level of investment reduced next season. 

It all sounds like quite a mess and long-serving Exeter coach Baxter is concerned that the pathway the Premiership has gone down might not be in the best interests of the game. His preference would be to restore the twelve-team league with one team going up and down each season and he replied at length this week when quizzed by RugbyPass about the impasse that will see the unwieldy 13-team format continue on into next season. 

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“I can’t say anything else. I have said this to Tony (Rowe, the Exeter CEO/chairman) and Tony knows my opinion on it – he knows I am continually going to say there should be promotion and relegation. Personally, I am still a little disappointed in the Premiership. I understand the covid pressures, of course I do, and I understand the business pressures and what people have invested in clubs,” explained Baxter, who has been in charge at Exeter since March 2009.

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“This is not me ignoring the challenges the Premiership have had but at the same time we had an opportunity to get promoted and we took it. People also do have to remember the clubs that have taken promotion have had to commit a lot to doing it as well. 

“It is too simple to just say any club that finishes top of the Championship should just get an automatic promotion because that is also a little unfair on the amount of investment that teams have made, but I am not 100 per cent sure the balance is quite right – if you know what I mean. 

“The procedure of how much you have to invest, how much you have to gamble so to speak in the Championship to give yourself the opportunity to be promoted, I am not quite sure if the balance is quite right because it does feel you do go to some places in the Premiership and don’t play in front of huge crowds and you don’t play at always fantastic facilities, you don’t great changing rooms and you don’t away have that kind of stuff. 

“I can’t talk for anyone else in the Premiership – and I don’t want to – but for me, I thought twelve clubs in the Premiership we had a good system of promotion and relegation, it was a good way to run things. I thought it had the right balance of the number of games combined with internationals, combined with the cup competitions. I thought it felt like a pretty good season. 

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“This season it has felt like a bit of a crammed season if I am honest with you and if we go to 14 clubs in the future that will be even more congested. International rugby isn’t going to go away, if anything you can probably see international rugby expanding. We have got ourselves on a pathway that does just feels a little wrong to me but as I said, I’m not a money man who has got millions of pounds invested in a rugby club so perhaps my opinion is not quite worth what those guys are.”

What the 13-team league has meant for the 2021/22 season is the introduction of bye-weeks where each club doesn’t play a game in two of the 26 rounds of matches. Exeter’s first bye happened in round eleven in December and they will also sit out round 24 in May. It has also resulted in the table looking lop-sided. For instance, heading into this weekend’s round 19 matches, seven clubs have played 18 matches while the other six have played 17.  

It’s funny and it certainly isn’t ideal,” continued Baxter about the bye-weeks format. “It also creates discrepancies in its fairness to teams. If you are a team with a lot of international players and your two rest weeks are outside the international windows compared to a team who is in a similar position and gets one rest week in the autumn internationals and one in the Six Nations as had happened, it is tough. 

“That puts you in a tough position. It puts you two games light in preparing without certain players. Even that in itself you can tell is not an ideal scenario but it is what it is – we have gone this way now and once you gave gone down the path you have to follow it and you reap the repercussions of it. 

“For me, a good structured, ladder-type progression of promotion, relegation is important. Personally, I couldn’t argue for it to be any other way because of the opportunity that we had.”

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