The futures of the Championship and British & Irish Cup are always high up the agenda and today I can reveal there will be significant change next season.
Whilst a proposal to expand the Championship from 12 to 14 teams from 2018-19 has been placed on temporary hold, the unloved British & Irish Cup will be scrapped and replaced by a new domestic competition involving the 12 tier two teams.
The decision to bin Championship play-offs in favour of a first-past-the-post system was the catalyst for some clubs to demand expansion to 14.
However, whilst the idea has not been completely dismissed and will be revisited, a consensus could not be reached, with some clubs voicing fears over squad sizes and the need to divide RFU and sponsorship money 14 ways rather than 12.
Speaking to Nigel Melville, the RFU’s director of professional rugby on Friday, he told me exclusively: “We’ve been discussing with clubs the future direction of the Championship and one of the options under consideration was to go to 14 teams.
“Others wanted to stay at 12 and it certainly won’t be happening next season, but there’s a follow-up meeting later this month ahead of a Professional Game Board meeting, and maybe a 14-team league is something we’ll look at in future.
“I’m looking at the whole thing in terms of the global season – where we’re heading above and below and how it all fits together.
“We’re taking all ideas on board and nothing is off the table as far as the Championship is concerned.”
Meanwhile, I doubt anyone will lament the passing of the British & Irish Cup. Personally, I thought the tournament had merit and, properly financed and run, it may have evolved into a very good tournament that could also have encompassed developing nations like Germany, Spain, Georgia, Portugal and Belgium.
However, clearly very few sides took it seriously.
The Scots pulled out early on and when the Welsh reduced it to rubble by fielding their appallingly monikered and equally hopeless ‘Premiership Select’ teams, the writing was on the wall.
So, from next season the B&I Cup is no more and the Championship clubs will go it alone, most likely splitting into three regionalised pools of four to produce six additional group fixtures, with quarter-finals, semi-finals and a final on top, although that is still to be decided.
Melville explained: “We thought that the B&I Cup might go because there’s no great appetite from the three sides (English, Welsh and Irish) and it’s not really working. There’s a lot of travelling involved and the variance of teams has been very up and down.
“There’s not a lot of spectator support for it, or commercial support either, so we want to look at other domestic-based options, probably regionally as well to cut down on the travelling and increase the number of local derbies.
“We’re currently looking at what the format should be because we need to make sure clubs get the right number of home games.”
Will that new cup competition fire the public imagination? I doubt it, but at least it will continue to provide development opportunities for younger players and, as long as the prize money is maintained, clubs will have an incentive.
Whether the Championship remains at 12 teams or increases to 14, I still believe the authorities have got the second tier of English rugby all wrong.
If the idea is to enable teams to bridge the gap between the Championship and Premiership, it is clearly failing miserably and there needs to be a far more radical rethink on what purpose the division is serving and where it needs to get to.
In these pages many, many years ago, I advocated an eight-team ‘Pro 8’ in which only clubs with genuine Premiership ambitions would be allowed to compete and who would have to aspire to Premiership standards over a set period of time.
By pooling the RFU’s money within a smaller group of teams, who could play home and away twice to produce a 28-match season, those clubs could increase their playing budgets to something near the level required to build competitive full-time squads.
I’d have blocked off automatic promotion and relegation below the top 20 teams (12 Premiership, eight Championship), turned National One into the pinnacle of the semi-professional/community game and employed that as the main base for dual-registration.
Nothing that’s happened in recent years convinces me this still isn’t the right way to go.