Let’s start with a question: when is a league not a league? Give up? When it mutates into a knockout competition, writes Richard Grainger.

Can you imagine the reaction if the FA proposed that, at the conclusion of the season, its second tier would be divided into two groups who would play for promotion or survival? Not only that, the top two thirds would be split into two further leagues, then there would be a semi-final and then a final and all of these outcomes would be decided on the basis of home and away matches. There’d be uproar.

So it was hardly surprising that, when this was proposed three years ago, there was a bit of head scratching.

But despite the necessity for five League One clubs to be relegated to National Division Two, six supported it. These were: Coventry, Doncaster, Exeter, London Welsh, Nottingham, and Plymouth Albion.

One critic was Geoff Irvine of Bedford, Chairman of First Division Rugby Limited (FDR) who said that it would be “financial suicide”.

What the RFU proposed was that the leading Division One clubs (those finishing 2nd to 11th in National League One) would become “founder members” if they agreed to turn professional. They would be joined by the relegated

Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL) club which would give them a regular league season of 22 fixtures.

TWO PROFESSIONAL LEAGUES ARE BETTER THAN ONE.

The RFU’s thinking was that two professional leagues, rather than one, would give the competitive structure in England a broader base and allow for sustainable movement between the two leagues. The alternative was to ring-fence the top tier.

The sweetener was that the Championship would receive £2.3m per annum from the RFU, £1m from the PRL and a decent slice of the RFU’s TV deal with Sky.

At the time, there was huge financial disparity in funding between the PRL and the FDR. In 1998, not long after the dawn of the professional era, the ratio of direct RFU funding between the leagues was 2:1 (£500k to £250k each club respectively). This rose to 5:1 in 2008 (£13m split between the PRL, while the FDR received a modest £168k club). Include TV revenues and other sponsorship deals, and this became nearer a massive 10:1 disparity.

IS IT A SUCCESS?

Whilst many consider that the new format which began in 2009, enhances the competition, it is not to everyone’s liking.

The main complaint, which this season’s changes should go some way to mitigating, is that results in the regular season count for nothing.

Of more concern to many is the situation at the bottom. Moseley prop Nathan Williams summed it up in the Birmingham Sunday Mercury in February last year.

“If you finish eighth you can get promoted and if you finish ninth you can get relegated, that doesn’t make much sense.

You could win nearly half your fixtures and still go down – that’s a very harsh reality.”

The other concern was that it allowed little time for clubs to recruit strengthened squads for the coming season.

“I don’t think it’s a very good system because you are talking another six weeks before you can even begin planning for the following season,” said Williams.

“The best of the crop is going to be signed up by then and you are going to have the boys who are left over.”

However, when Exeter was promoted to the Premiership after that first season, they dispelled that worry by finishing mid-table at the first attempt with very little external enhancement of their squad.

SO WHERE ARE WE NOW?

In the promotion phase, the top two clubs at the end of the regular season will start the play-off on three points. The third and fourth placed clubs will start on two points. The fifth and sixth placed clubs will start on one. The remaining two clubs will start on none.

As before, the top eight clubs will be divided into two pools: 1st, 4th, 5th and 8th comprise Play-off Group A, while 2nd 3rd, 6th and 7th enter Group B. The two highest placed clubs go through to a two-legged semi-final and the winners to a home and away final.

At the bottom, the four clubs fighting for survival will carry over 1 point for each win in the regular season.

CONSTRAINTS

A salary cap limits free-spending benefactors from unleveling the playing field. Perhaps more significantly, only clubs that meet the PRL’s minimum requirements – in terms of facilities – are allowed to join the top tier.

Of the current crop of contenders for promotion in 2012, it is likely that only Leeds, Bristol and Nottingham would currently meet the criteria.

The pick of this weekend’s fixtures is at the Memorial Stadium on Friday night, where leaders Bristol take on second-placed Bedford, three points adrift. This festive rugby feast kicks off at six o’clock. Don’t expect too much seasonal generosity from either side.

Full round up next week – have a good Christmas!

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