Changes announced today will create a 14-team Premiership and take us a chilling step closer to ringfencing. But the RFU insist they will ensure top-flight access in the future
RFU put a “pause” on Premiership relegation
Just days after the greatest-ever Gallagher Premiership final comes a dampener. The RFU today announced structural changes that will severely impinge on the concept of promotion and relegation, a principle that the vast majority in the game holds dear.
Relegation from the Premiership was scrapped this season, and not unreasonably because of the number of matches that fell foul of Covid. Now, there will be no relegation at the end of the next two seasons either.
The 13-club league in place for 2021-22 – the current 12 plus promoted Saracens – will become a 14-club league for the 2022-23 season, the additional team being the winner of the Greene King IPA Championship.
In 2023-24, there will be no automatic promotion to England’s top division. Instead, it will be via a play-off between the Championship winners and the bottom-placed Premiership team.
Even that comes with the proviso that the club meets the “required minimum standards criteria” that, ominously, are now to be revised.
Today’s press release says promotion and relegation will revert to an annual one up, one down from the 2024-25 season, “unless Council agrees otherwise”.
The changes have been dressed up as the Covid Recovery Plan and Temporary Pause on Relegation. No one can deny the financial impact of the pandemic, with Premiership clubs required to obtain £88m in government loans.
However, it’s difficult not to see the new structure as the thin end of the wedge. The RFU has contributed significantly to the weakening of Championship clubs through savage funding cuts (pre Covid). If they were trying to engineer a situation where they could say that no one else is remotely equipped to go up, they went the right way about it.
RFU president Jeff Blackett is quoted as saying this is “not ringfencing” and that RFU Council is “committed to maintaining the integrity of the league structure by ensuring that access to the Premiership will be retained in the future”.
The backlash seen in football against a proposed European Super League showed that supporters don’t care for structures without jeopardy. The RFU’s attempt to partly justify the new structure on the back of “research with 500 rugby fans” is feeble.
In France the Top 14 operates a two-up, two-down system and the competition generates huge interest. A different structure works better for English rugby but ringfencing must not be allowed to rear its ugly head.
Saracens DoR Mark McCall said as much this year. “If there is a club with the resources and the wherewithal to come into the Premiership, they should be allowed to do that. There’s no reason to stop a club with ambition coming into a competition with no relegation,” he said.
Ryan Lamb, now coaching at Hartpury, offered similar sentiments. “I understand all the arguments behind ringfencing and putting everything towards developing players for the national team,” said the much-travelled fly-half. “But without the drama of promotion and relegation, the last two or three months of the season would be a disaster because you might have three or four teams with nothing to play for.
“I played in a Championship final with Worcester in 2015 and when you’re in that position and see the ecstasy and agony of winning and losing, it would be a shame to lose that drama.”
Let us hope the RFU are true to their word about protecting the right to promotion and that the temporary pause remains just that.
Worcester Warriors issued a statement welcoming the RFU changes: “The increase in the size of the Premiership to 14 clubs will increase competition, provide more excitement and entertainment for supporters, and keep the door open for ambitious Championship clubs.
“Warriors believe it’s important that ambitious Championship clubs have the opportunity to progress to the Premiership as we have done… today’s decision will lead to increased confidence in clubs for further investment into the game which, in turn, will ensure that the Premiership remains the most competitive and exciting club league in the world.”
Also announced today was the intention to introduce a mandatory England Qualified Players (EQP) system from August 2024. This would impose a minimum of 15 EQPs in each match-day Premiership squad and offer greater flexibility to select non-EQP players of any nationality.
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