PHILADELPHIA, PA – Promotion is always a hot-button topic in rugby and it’s especially so in the the Aviva Premiership right now. As a collective, or on a club-by-club basis, the Premiership does not owe anything to the Doncasters or Cornish Pirates of the world – or any other club in England for that matter – outside of its ranks who might be aiming at moving up.
The goal of the Premiership is not to create a system where every club in the country can end up as the best. The goal is to create the conditions for great rugby. These conditions include the financial conditions.
Some of the chatter regarding the end of promotion/relegation is tinged with the notion, “It’s not fair.” But really, who suffers the injustice? Clubs who have been aiming for promotion following the existing rules. Soon, though, as in a matter of months after new rules are announced, adjustments can be made to whatever those new rules are.
Alan Pearey asked in Rugby World Magazine, “Who are the powers-that-be to decide that, from 2016-17, no one outside their current cosy cabal should be allowed to dream? That Cinderella cannot go to the ball.”
They are the people that run the league. That seems pretty straightforward.
Cinderella is a fairy tale, not a healthy goal for anyone’s future. Cinderella couldn’t get to the ball by herself; she needed help. If there is a magic-wand wielding person out there who wants to fit London Scottish up with the perfect clothes and fancy coach – and top level facilities and full stands – I am sure whoever is running the Premiership at the time won’t be too quick to dismiss the possibilities such magic brings.
Until then the obligation of the clubs at the top is to building sustainable businesses. A large part of that is keeping fans pleased enough that they care and show that caring via their wallets and eyeballs. Doing that does not require promotion and relegation.
The strongest argument for maintaining the same clubs in the league for a long period of time is stability that allows for longer-term investments. The game needs more than blind loyalty and optimism to drive improvement.
The worst argument for ending promotion/relegation is the fixation on London Welsh’s performance this year. The gap between the Premiership and Championship might be widening, but the dismal showing of one club during one season is not enough to prove this is an insurmountable problem.
The current 12 clubs plus Bristol, Worcester, and Leeds are the teams that have played at the top level in the last 10 seasons. Worcester and Bristol are well ahead of the competition in the Championship. The top level is already essentially a closed group. Making it official will change things, but it won’t hurt things.
Even with the ranks closed, there will still be compelling storylines and underdogs to root for. Few neutrals are rooting for London Welsh this year–it is just too painful and ugly. However, I suspect a fair number of neutrals watching Newcastle this year have pulled for them because their rugby is often fun to watch and it can be nice to see a side improve.
Clubs will still be competing to stay away from the bottom. Newcastle finished one spot ahead of Worcester last season. Their strides toward improvement this year are surely fueled by more than the fear of relegation. If that fear were the only factor, they’d have little reason to perform now.
The drama that relegation can bring is no more likely to happen than drama for a final playoff spot or drama in qualifying for European competition. Yes, with relegation there is more at stake, but we don’t need the prospect of demotion in order to invest games with meaning. If more drama is needed, simply shortening the season would be one way to give each game added drama. Some fans are served by promotion/relegation, but for every supporter who thrills at his clubs top flight status, there is another supporter who cringes at the demotion.
A Different Solution
As an American, I think about what might be a comparable experience to rooting for a local Championship side. Minor league baseball.
In a scenario like baseball in America, every Premiership club would develop a relationship with a club in the Championship. The Championship club could keep some independence, or it could be owned by the Premiership club. The team fielded in the Championship serves as a developmental side.
14 Premiership teams, the number most often mentioned, would mean 14 Championship teams. Everyone has something at stake and everyone – from fans on up – is attached to the top level of rugby.
This system would give the top clubs a reason to foster good rugby just below the Premiership. The good rugby would be a product of the players being developed there. Veteran players new to a club or those coming back from an injury could also see time in this “minor league.” Supporters of the Championship side would have good rugby and sense of connection to the players. There would be clear rules about who is eligible to play for which side on which weekends. Such details would be relatively simple to work out.
Ultimately, clubs with ambition and quality management are great, but those in the Premiership group are not bound by such ambition.
That’s it for now. Feel free to add your thoughts below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@: RugbyWrapUp, Jake Frechette, Junoir Blaber, James Harrington, Nick Hall, Jamie Wall, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Jaime Loyd, Scheenagh Harrington, Karen Ritter and Declan Yeats, respectively.