Premiership Rugby's relegation battle is set to go down to the wire, so why ring-fence the league?

 
Michael Searles
Leicester Tigers v Northampton Saints - Gallagher Premiership Rugby
Leicester Tigers are one of a few clubs to have never been relegated from the Premiership but currently sit in 10th place (Source: Getty)

English top-flight rugby has rarely been more competitive than it has this season yet talk of ring-fencing the competition continues to loom large.


Premiership Rugby is set to provide an update to its board on Tuesday regarding the proposal to ring-fence the league, despite the fiercest relegation battle for many years currently raging on.

The debate over scrapping relegation and promotion has refused to go away this season and is expected to be high on the agenda at the meeting.

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A number of England's leading clubs are reportedly interested in creating a 13-team league that would see the existing 12 Premiership sides joined by London Irish, who currently lead the RFU Championship and are set for promotion.


Those 13 teams already make up the Premiership Rugby shareholders and any decision to scrap relegation and promotion would have to be unanimously agreed.

But despite appetite in some quarters, it is a move that risks jeopardising the current levels of excitement that the league is providing.

Relegation battle

At present there are just 13 points – three wins and a bonus point – separating the bottom six sides, while there are only eight points between the bottom four.

It is perilous for those involved and there is reason to be fearful for some of English rugby's biggest sides, with Leicester Tigers, one of an elite clutch of clubs never to have been relegated from the top tier, among those facing danger.

Scrapping relegation would guarantee Leicester and the other 12 teams security and provide certain of revenue in the medium term, which could in turn result in greater investment. But it would also remove the excitement that the lower half of the league provides.

The subsequent loss of those competitive games with meaning could also hinder fans' enjoyment and, should the overall product suffer, potentially detract from commercial revenue and broadcast deals.

Bristol Bears v Worcester Warriors - Gallagher Premiership Rugby
Bristol Bears and Worcester Warriors have both suffered relegation in recent years and are embroiled in a scrap to escape it this season (Source: Getty)

But while the financial consequences of both systems are open to debate, the limits it will impose on the rest of the Championship's teams is not.

The likes of Yorkshire Carnegie and Bedford Blues will have their potential for growth stunted, which could also have a negative knock-on effect for the grassroots game.

While it is true that relegation battles have not been as intensely fought in recent seasons, with the likes of London Irish, London Welsh, Bristol and Worcester all having been significantly cut adrift, this season has reignited the appeal of the current system, while also giving those in the division below something to aspire to.

CVC's influence

It is the kind of competitive and close action that CVC will have hoped for when the private equity company acquired a 27 per cent stake in Premiership Rugby earlier this year, although CVC will likely support the more American strategy of ring-fencing the competition – common to the NFL, NBA and other leading US sports – and their increasing influence could be a factor.

“It is the right time to fundamentally rethink the system in this country as we try to secure financial sustainability for the professional game in England at all levels,” a Premiership Rugby spokesperson said last month. “We are in a dialogue with the RFU, and as we have already announced, we will be coming back to the Premiership Rugby board meeting with an update.”

Convincing the Rugby Football Union, who must agree to the proposal along with the 13 Premiership stake-holding clubs, could be the biggest stumbling block yet for those backing the plan.

In December, interim chief executive Nigel Melville, suggested the proposal was unlikely to go through, but with Bill Sweeney set to take over that role full-time, the new man could have other ideas.

The RFU also recently rejected a proposal from the women's club game to ring-fence the Premiership 15s, which it had been argued would increase investment in the fledgling competition.

It has set a worrying precedent for supporters of the plan, who now face an uphill challenge to scrap relegation, but does not yet spell defeat for the proposal.

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Alternative arrangements are also being discussed by league bosses, who have floated the idea of a play-off between the team bottom of the Premiership and the winners of the Championship, ending automatic relegation.

It is a less dramatic proposal, and therefore would seem more likely to garner support from those on the RFU Council, but will still face staunch opposition from a number of Championship clubs.

As the fight to avoid relegation from the Premiership rolls on into the final weeks of the season, it looks likely that there will soon be changes to the current format, but with the relegation scrap the league's biggest allure until the post-season play-offs, ditching it entirely may prove to be a mistake.