Bottom-placed Gloucester can breathe easier after the RFU decide that relegation would be unfair in a Covid-affected campaign. But the threat of ring-fencing has increased

RFU scraps relegation for this season

There will be no relegation from the Gallagher Premiership or Greene King IPA Championship this season.

The decision, reached after a majority vote today by the RFU Council, follows fixture disruption caused by the pandemic. Six Premiership matches have been cancelled so far this season because of Covid cases while the second-tier Championship hasn’t even got underway. The community league programme has been scrapped altogether for the season.

However, the winners of this season’s 11-club Championship, due to kick off on 6 March and with a two-leg final in June, will be promoted to next season’s Premiership. Subject, of course, to meeting the current minimum standards criteria.

Saracens are the red-hot favourites to win that league, with Ealing Trailfinders regarded as their principal challengers. So next season’s Premiership will comprise 13 clubs and the Championship 11. London Scottish, who chose not to compete this season for financial reasons, will rejoin the latter division.

Speculation about the scrapping of relegation for this season had been widely discussed in recent weeks. The decision was delayed because of understandable resistance from rights broadcaster BT Sport, who are concerned that matches played without jeopardy in the bottom half of the table will reduce the league’s appeal.

The Council felt that the cancelled games – at Bath, Newcastle, Worcester, London Irish and Northampton (two) – had had a material impact on league positions and could mean that relegation was not based purely on on-field performance. Bath, Worcester and Gloucester, currently the bottom three sides, will be most relieved by today’s decision.

RFU scraps relegation for this season Gloucester

Gloucester are propping up the Premiership table but now know they are safe this year (Getty Images)

Gloucester head coach George Skivington, speaking ahead of his team’s game against Bristol, said: “The goalposts haven’t moved for us. The pressure of being in professional sport is the same wherever you are in the table. We will still be scrapping for every point we can get.”

Most would agree that scrapping relegation this season, given the impact that Covid-19 has had, is a reasonable course of action. Although interestingly, Ugo Monye, the former England wing who works for BT Sport, suggested a play-off would have been fairer.

What is disturbing, however, is some of the other wording buried lower down in today’s RFU press release. In particular, the threat of “a further moratorium on promotion and relegation for three or four seasons”.

The press release says: “Over the next four months the RFU, Premiership Rugby and Championship representatives will work on recommendations for changes to the season structures for 2021/22 and beyond for both the Premiership and Championship.

“Holistic new minimum standards on and off the pitch for promotion to the Gallagher Premiership will be developed between now and the end of May 2021 with involvement and approval from Council, which will be designed to promote sustainability in the pro game.

“It is hoped that proposals will include a different approach to promotion and relegation from the Gallagher Premiership. The aim will be to retain the ambition of clubs in the Greene King IPA Championship and below and to continue to allow a route to promotion to the Gallagher Premiership. New minimum standard criteria, investment in facilities and club funding will be discussed.

“The domestic calendar will be reviewed, which will also allow additional preparation time for the England men’s team ahead of Rugby World Cup 2023. Player welfare will be central to the proposals and the RPA will be consulted on the development of season structures.

Saracens v Ealing

Saracens and Ealing Trailfinders are expected to contest the Championship promotion spot (Getty Images)

“It is likely that any season structures may also include a further moratorium on promotion and relegation for three or four seasons, after which the structure will be subject to further review. Those proposals would be subject to a vote of the RFU Council before the end of the 2020/21 season.”

Talk of ring-fencing the Premiership has plagued the sport for years, despite overwhelming arguments against it. The rise of Exeter Chiefs from relative obscurity to English and European champions is evidence that sport, like life, never stands still. It seems the chances of such uplifting stories, already damaged by appalling funding cuts to the Championship clubs, are about to be reduced.

Exeter Chiefs

Exeter Chiefs have shown that lower-tier clubs can achieve great things if given the chance (CameraSport)

Tonight Monye offered his own unequivocal verdict on the RFU decision.

“The one thing about our league, and we say it’s the most competitive league in the world, is that we have jepoardy at the top and the bottom. Every game has a consequence,” he said.

“And now there’s going to be no relegation. Everyone within rugby, the stakeholders, the unions, the clubs and the provinces, want to grow the game. We know when Saracens were announced as being relegated last January that the engagement level of fans and supporters with rugby fell off a cliff. So having no jeopardy at the bottom isn’t helping the very mission statement which rugby has put out in terms of growing the game.”

Referring to the extra games that will be required by creating a 13-team Premiership, he added: “We don’t need more fixtures, we need more meaningful fixtures.

“There needs to be consequences for recruitment, for the way in which you spend your money, for the way you prepare your teams.”

RFU scraps relegation Ugo Monye

Former England wing Ugo Monye is a passionate advocate of promotion and relegation (Getty Images)

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