Throughout the last few years, there have been plenty of accusations aimed at the Rugby Football Union (RFU) for not giving English Premiership clubs the proper financial support that they have needed, and there are those who blame the RFU, at least in part, for the demise of both Wasps and Worcester Warriors this season and the issues that London Irish are now dealing with.
However, those lower down the pyramid of English rugby would stand up at that and argue that they have been even more abandoned by the governing body, with the English Championship’s clubs all seeing their funding cut three years ago and there still being a strong feeling that they have been harshly treated in that regard.
The other thing that they have not been overly pleased about is the lack of promotion and relegation between the top two tiers, with those in the second tier feeling that they have been cheated of opportunities to test themselves against the country’s best, and it is hard to disagree with them when looking at the many ways in which the Premiership and the RFU have sought to stifle their attempts to sit at the sport’s top table in this country.
The first indication of the Premiership wanting to stay as it was and to not allow any other clubs to join came a few years ago, when the word “ring-fencing” was introduced to the English rugby dictionary. This in effect would see a border formed around the Premiership which would “fence in” those currently in the league and would keep everyone else out, and it was understandably met with severe opposition from those outside the Premiership at the time.
As a result, the plans were shelved, but when Covid came along, many saw a need to protect those clubs who were unable to carry out their fixtures due to positive tests and to prevent them being punished for it through points being lost. Therefore, the RFU therefore stepped in and decided to bring relegation and promotion to a halt for a set period of time, not just between the top two divisions but between all major leagues, and, even though they stressed at the time that it was not them revisiting the ring-fencing proposals that had been so heavily opposed, it was that in all but name.
Not meeting Premiership standards
Whilst Covid was around, many put up with that though, expecting that, once the pandemic had calmed down, promotion and relegation would be reintroduced. However, it wasn’t, and there was another obstacle for those clubs hoping to get promoted to then face, with the RFU insisting on any side that wanted to compete in the top tier meeting several conditions. One of those regarded the capacity of their stadiums, in that any ground hosting a Premiership match had to hold at least 10,000 spectators.
Those who wanted to be inspected, for want of a better word, were asked to apply during the 2021/2022 season for someone to come round and assess whether they would meet those conditions. Out of those competing for the Championship title at the time, it was Ealing Trailfinders, who have long been Premiership hopefuls, and Doncaster Knights who put their names forward.
However, they were told by the RFU that they would not be eligible due to their home grounds, Trailfinders Sports Ground and Castle Park respectively, did not have the required amount of spectators, and that no evidence of planning applications to expand their grounds had been indicated, nor an intent to groundshare with another rugby or football club.
Despite protestations from both sides, Doncaster did take that on board, and this year they were able to prove to the RFU that they were looking to expand and did have permission to do so, and the RFU announced during the campaign that the Knights would now be eligible for a place in the Premiership should they win the second tier. Ealing still do not meet the standards.
The other reason that clubs in the second tier believe that they should be given places in the top tier is because they are managing to keep their finances in the green, with this season’s champions Jersey Reds arguing recently that they should be rewarded for not struggling in economic terms whilst Premiership clubs are.
Boss Harvey Biljon has accepted that his club may not yet by ready to host Premiership matches, but he has pointed out that Jersey do have a history of hosting top flight clubs for pre-season fixtures, and so their stadium size and overall facilities don’t seem to bother Premiership sides, so, whilst there are regulations regarding capacity, they should not be used to stop second tier sides who have earnt the right to be promoted from moving up the pyramid.
In short, there is a strong argument that English rugby is forgetting the teams lower down the pyramid, and that is a problem that has been going on for a while but which cannot go on much longer if the game is to stay sustainable.
The RFU do seem to agree that changes need to be made, with them announcing recently that the Championship sides would compete alongside the Premiership’s clubs in the Premiership Rugby Cup next season, whilst they have also announced that a club could be promoted if they meet the standards (although there is no relegation from the top tier) and that a “rebirth” of the English game will take place, with the overall structure of the top two tiers being reset ahead of the 2024/2025 campaign.
It does sound like they have finally woken up to what clubs and fans have known about for some time, in that English rugby as a system is not working. However, the worry among some is that they are being reactive and not proactive, and it may have come too late when looking at what has happened to Wasps, Worcester and London Irish this season.