Any takers for a 13-team Premiership? Get used to the idea because that was one of the top agenda items up for discussion at last Tuesday’s Premiership Rugby board meeting, with moves to bring Bristol into the fold and shut the door on the Championship gaining pace as the weeks and months go by.
With new RFU chief executive Steve Brown recently indicating his willingness to consider scrapping promotion and relegation and introducing a moratorium of anywhere between three and five years, many of our top-flight clubs are seizing the opportunity to make their play.
Ring-fencing has been a hot topic of debate for many years but always been resisted.
Now, however, the stars seem to be aligning in favour of the drawbridge brigade, and with Yorkshire Carnegie becoming an ever more distant player, some see now as the time to strike.
As ever, the topic provokes furious debate and when I put the possibility of a 13-team Premiership and ring-fencing to Ealing Trailfinders rugby director Ben Ward, he was naturally aghast.
Ward, whose side currently lie second in the Championship, eight points behind Bristol, told me: “I understand some arguments but a
13-team Premiership is random and just cuts things off for the sake of it. Why 13 anyway? Why not 10, 12 or 14? It makes no sense.
“We’ve applied for a Premiership license this year and have ambitions to play at that level – and there are other ambitious clubs like Doncaster, Bedford, Yorkshire and Cornish Pirates, who are just in the middle of trying to build a Premiership standard stadium.
“This country should be able to support at least 20 professional teams. How you divide that – whether it’s 10 10 or 12+8 – can be debated, but we should be supporting ambitious teams and helping them grow, not shutting the door and saying ‘get lost’.”
Ward does not believe a three or five-year moratorium is viable either, arguing: “Why would someone want to invest in a Championship club if there’s no guaranteed route to going up? They tried licensing in Super League and it didn’t work, so they scrapped it.
“I would like to see two leagues of ten. If you took the current top teams in the Championship and brought down two from the Premiership, with two-up, two-down and an inter-divisional development competition, you’d create a really strong set-up.”
Whilst Ward’s views are entirely understandable and will strike a chord with most rugby people and readers, attitudes amongst the Premiership clubs – and sections of the RFU – have hardened since the demise of London Welsh, who embarrassed the top-flight.
Well-resourced clubs like Bristol have been held back by having to spend years getting out of the Championship and then coming straight back down, while less well-heeled clubs like London Irish, Worcester and Newcastle operate in constant fear of the drop.
That, claims Newcastle managing director Mick Hogan, is not good for business. He said: “For the long-term benefit of English rugby and England, the arguments for ending automatic promotion and relegation outweigh those for keeping it.
“People will always point to Exeter, but for every Exeter there’s been a London Welsh, Rotherham, Leeds or Bristol and it’s costing the sport tens of millions of pounds.
“Exeter are the exceptions and the debate should be over another pathway for ambitious teams.”
Hogan dismisses any argument that ring-fencing would create complacency at the foot of the Premiership, with opponents of ring-fencing claiming that teams near the bottom would switch off after Christmas and merely coast through the rest of the season.
Hogan added: “I think you’d be questioning the integrity of coaches and players, who are amongst the most competitive people in the world. And if you look at National Rugby League in Australia, which is a closed league, it’s usually quite the opposite that occurs.
“Cronulla Sharks won it last year after finishing bottom two years before that. They were able to take a much longer-term view on building their team and off-field support without the threat of relegation – and that’s exactly what would happen here as well.”
My own view on all of this is that the people in power have lost sight of what this is all about and I find the lack of long-term vision over the structure of our leagues frightening.
As Ben Ward says, a 13-team league is purely random and is surely not the right answer.
Neale Harvey is an
award-winning writer for the weekly Rugby Paper