English rugby risks ridicule again
May 28, 2012
Will London Welsh grace the Premiership stage next year? © Getty Images
A season that began poorly for the Rugby Football Union with England stumbling from one headline-grabbing drama to the next at the World Cup in New Zealand is in danger of being book-ended by yet more unwanted headlines - again of their own making.
The RFU's decision to block London Welsh's promotion to the Aviva Premiership should they overcome Cornish Pirates in the Championship season finale on the grounds that they have failed to meet the all-important 'minimum standards criteria' was greeted with consternation across the rugby spectrum and reeks of a double standard. The timing, quite simply, was a joke. Even if the news was to be positive, the announcement, just hours before the Championship final, was at best ill-timed and at worst deeply insulting.
But there was worse to come. The failure to deliver the full judgement to London Welsh at the time of the ruling while at the same time announcing they had 14 days to consider an appeal was unprofessional and invited yet more ridicule. Add to this the absence of anyone to explain the decision - given its importance and the guaranteed interest - and it is little wonder there has been nothing but negative and justified reaction.
The all-too-brief judgement given to both the club and the wider rugby community highlighted the issue of primary tenancy and London Welsh's ability to stage matches when required at the Oxford United FC's Kassam Stadium - their proposed home should they be granted promotion. Many are rightly outraged that a club has potentially been denied entry to the top flight due to misgivings about a proposed ground share when four clubs in the top division - London Irish, London Wasps, Saracens and Sale - already operate under a similar arrangement but are not tied by the same conditions due to their Premiership status pre-dating the stringent regulations.
Such a stance does the Professional Game Board, the governing body made up of representatives from the RFU, Premiership Rugby, RFU Championship and the Rugby Players' Association, no favours at all and their on-going failure to expand on their initial ruling only serves to heighten long-held concerns that the Premiership remains a largely self-serving exclusive club - and one reluctant to accept new members.
London Welsh insist they have a binding agreement with Oxford United that will ensure they can meet the demands laid down in the MSC and the fact that the ground has previously staged top -class rugby surely strengthens their case. But the RFU were in possession of these facts prior to their decision which suggests we must look elsewhere for the "various failures" identified by the independent auditors and detailed to the kingmakers of the RFU's board of directors. One potentially deal-breaking element of their proposed switch from Old Deer Park has since come to light and relates to the location of a 'standby ground'.
London Welsh chairman Bleddyn Phillips, an increasingly-recognisable figure as he continues to take his club's fight to the masses, accepts that his side's alternative venue - Brentford FC's Griffin Park - falls outside the 30-mile radius laid specified but he also notes that no game had to be moved in the most recent Premiership campaign. If London Welsh's possible ascent has been vetoed on these grounds then the game is in trouble and such strict criteria does not bode well for the Pirates should they succeed in getting the green light for a new stadium in deepest Cornwall.
The thinking behind the incredibly-detailed MSC appears sound. They are: "Designed to ensure high standards across the Premiership are maintained both on and off the field." But Premiership Rugby face a major public relations problem because these safeguards are now seen as barriers constructed by an elite few determined to protect their own interests. Far from ensuring that English rugby's top flight goes from strength to strength, they are harming the development of the game. Exeter Chiefs injected new life into the top flight having blazed a trail from the Championship to the Premiership and their success should pave the way for others.
There is a clear desire to protect the investment of those digging deep to keep the country's 12 leading clubs alive, an honourable quest, but this must not come at the expense of the wider game. To deny the leading clubs from the Championship to the chance to join the Premiership party when they appear fully equipped to do so is an insult to those keeping the second tier alive.
As soon as the RFU's board of directors made their decision, this issue was immediately elevated from the age-old promotion/relegation debate to something much bigger encompassing the future of the professional game in England. What right-minded and deep-pocketed benefactor looking for a return on their investment, however unrealistic that is considering the current market forces, are going to want to be involved in a so-called professional set-up that does not allow them the chance to realise a dream.
A handful of Premiership club owners benefit from this decision as opposed to the tens of thousands of fans and forward-thinking chairmen left disillusioned by the treatment of side that has defied the odds to push for promotion. The Championship's own reputation has suffered in recent years with a convoluted competition structure not helping their cause and this latest drama will no doubt ensure another fruitless summer in the RFU's quest to secure a title sponsor.
Newcastle Falcons are the most interested observers of this saga as they are the ones with the most to lose but they could have little argument should the Premiership trap door open beneath them having propped up the table at the end of the regular season.
Meanwhile, concerns over the possible shrinking of the rugby footprint in the north of the country are as irrelevant as those arguments citing the contribution made by London Welsh to the game in their 127-year history. This decision should not be based on emotion - but hard facts.
A meeting between London Welsh and the RFU is scheduled ahead of the second leg of the Championship decider but given the complexity of the machinations up to this point, do not expect a sudden u-turn. Such an announcement would be as ill-timed as their original decision and an insult to a Pirates side who may be chasing the game but can still claim the Championship title.
London Welsh's plans for next season remain in limbo - unable to commit in terms of recruitment and playing budgets as they are not sure whether they will grace to the top division. In contrast, all their current Championship rivals, and their potential Premiership foes have already dotted the i's and crossed the t's on their squads for the next domestic campaign.
A cosy chat at HQ appears unlikely to provide all the answers no matter how keen chief executive Ian Ritchie may be to avoid the kind of negative headlines that have plagued his organisation in recent years. If London Welsh are prepared to push their claims further, an ugly legal battle looks likely with QC's apparently falling over themselves to represent a club they believe has a strong case.
This problem is not going to go away any time soon and a chorus of disapproval will only intensify should London Welsh complete victory over the Pirates on Wednesday night. But that will soon de drowned out, as a supposedly professional game is once again reduced to a laughing stock.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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