The debate surrounding Aviva Premiership relegation goes on, with a top-flight closed shop now back on rugby's agenda. Here are the thoughts of former Fiji Sevens coach Ben Ryan
Scrapping Premiership relegation would have positive effect argues Ben Ryan
Relegation from the Aviva Premiership divides people. It’s not quite ‘Wars of the Roses’ but it seems people have a black or white outlook on it – no grey to be seen. Here is my take on why scrapping relegation would have a positive effect, with a particular lean towards performance.
As yet, no club that has come into the Premiership, with the exception of Exeter, has been anything other than risk-averse. I’ve seen teams come up and try to play the same as everyone else. There are some contrasts but I haven’t seen anyone really try to do it differently, to play a game less based on power and more on dexterity.
Everyone does tonnes of analysis on each other, but instead they could be coming up with new ideas on the field or surprise moves that no one could have analysed.
One of the major reasons for this is the fear of relegation. Of course, you could see it as an exciting challenge, but that’s not happening – and it’s not because coaches and players are unable to think to that level of creativity or improve players with amazing core skills. I think it’s the landscape. The reason Super Rugby is so much less conservative than the Premiership is that the spectre of relegation isn’t hanging over teams.
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Without relegation you wouldn’t get as much reliance on proven overseas players either. Younger British players would get more of a chance and that would help accelerate their experience for their club and national sides.
I love seeing amazing overseas talent in the Premiership and I know there are English-qualified player quotas, but too many young players still don’t play enough rugby because they aren’t given a chance in the top flight. With less pressure, clubs may be happier to release players for national programmes like the U20s and sevens too.
The cost to those clubs trying to get into the Premiership and then trying to stay in is huge. Exeter rose through the ranks smartly, but on the flip side we see clubs break themselves financially or overly rely on a benefactor. For every Exeter, there is a London Welsh. If London Irish don’t avoid the drop, what will happen to them next season?
An argument put forward by those in favour of relegation is that removing it would mean dead-rubber games at the end of the season. That’s happened a fair bit recently anyway as clubs get relegated earlier than the closing weeks and it’s more depressing to watch a club that’s already relegated being stripped apart in front of your eyes.
We have had some great end-of-season weekends – the Harlequins relegation weekend in 2005 was a real cliffhanger – but it’s not a common occurrence.
Not many people liked it when the Premiership changed from ‘first past the post’ to the play-off system to decide who would be champions, but it works brilliantly and maintains the excitement.
Now a solution is needed at the other end of the table to protect the promoted clubs, to increase the chances of young players getting Premiership game time and to allow the shackles to at least be loosened, if not completely shaken off, so they play a more expansive style that pushes the boundaries technically and mentally and not as much physically.
Perhaps change the points system to make it more attack-minded – a winning bonus point for scoring three more tries than the other team; keep the four-try losing bonus point but award two points if a losing team scores six tries; have ‘jokers’ where teams choose one game a season that is worth double points.
Also, put pressure on the lawmakers to stop making the breakdown a place of carnage and introduce a law that stops sides from kicking penalties to touch.
I get those who don’t want to shut the door and I understand those who are anti-relegation. The real answer may be somewhere in the middle.
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Ben Ryan guided Fiji to gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics and is Rugby World magazine’s resident columnist. Read his views every month in the magazine.
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