Harry Scott-Munro puts forward the case to continue with promotion and relegation from the top flight of English rugby.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given opportunity for many topics to rear their ugly heads. In the world of rugby, this is no different as the age-old debate of ringfencing the premiership has once again come to the fore.
With all rugby below the Championship cancelled this season and even that league itself having to play a condensed season, talk has again returned to the matter of whether ringfencing the league is the right way to do things, for the short term at least.
Those who preach the necessity of ring-fencing will base their argument on the lack of quality in the championship and the opportunity it gives for clubs to give game-time to younger players coming through the ranks without fear of relegation, especially in the current climate of several matches being cancelled due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
Looking at the raw facts, the team that gets relegated from the premiership the season before has been promoted back to the league the following season in seven of the last ten seasons, suggesting that competition within the Championship isn’t strong enough for multiple teams to launch sustained bids for promotion.
Over the last ten years, there has tended to be a core group of 13 sides that have played in the premiership, the only outlier in that being London Welsh, who were relegated instantly both times they were promoted, before falling on financial difficulty and being expelled from the English league system in 2017.
However, there is more to it than that. The jeopardy of relegation allows competition throughout the league for the entirety of the season. Of the last 10 seasons and ignoring the fact that Saracens received a severe points deduction to confirm their relegation for salary cap breaches last season, seven of the last ten seasons have seen the difference between de facto 11th and 12th places at less than 10 points, meaning that there is still something to play for right up to the final rounds of the season.
If it weren’t for the Saracens salary cap scandal last season, English rugby powerhouse Leicester Tigers would’ve been relegated for the first time in their history. The 2015/16 season saw London Irish relegated for the first time since 1994, before rugby had gone professional. This season, Gloucester Rugby are currently bottom of the table, themselves like Leicester having never been relegated.
That is part of the challenge of the league, maintaining consistency and staying at a level where you can compete. Relegation in the early 2000’s for Harlequins and Northampton Saints allowed them a season to blood a large number of youngsters that would eventually become mainstays of their premiership title winning sides several years later. That risk of relegation has to remain to provide an incentive to fight for every point on the field. Last season’s end, with the 11 other clubs safe in the knowledge that Saracens were destined for the drop, saw a large number of high-scoring mismatches, as those who knew they had no chance of securing European rugby or play-off aspirations picked weakened sides against seasoned premiership players. That is no way surely, for a league to run effectively to appeal to the widest possible audience.
The other side of the argument is that of the dreamers, those who aspire to tread the path that Exeter Chiefs have over the last decade. In France, Oyonnax went from the third tier of French rugby to the top tier and elite European competition in just eleven years between 2003 and 2014. At the current moment, Ealing Trailfinders, having finished second for the last three seasons in the Championship, are desperate to prove they can make the step up and compete with England’s best as Exeter did all those years ago. Recent victories over Newcastle Falcons who have set the Gallagher Premiership alight on their return after relegation and Saracens, proves that they can compete if given the opportunity.
The risk factor of promotion and relegation must remain so sides such as Ealing can have the fair chance they deserve to prove they belong at that level. Yes, they may falter as many have done before. But they must be given the opportunity. If they aren’t, how will they ever know if they can mix it? If promotion and relegation are scrapped, it would be a complete smack in the face to the English league system and would show a complete lack of commitment from the RFU to the grassroots and semi-professional game in England.