Should the Premiership scrap relegation?
April 26, 2012
Should English rugby's top flight scrap the current relegation/promotion set-up? © Getty Images
Welcome to the first edition of Tackling Rugby - our new regular feature that will debate the key issues in the game.
With the Aviva Premiership trap door poised to open once more, we kick things off by asking whether English rugby's top flight should scrap relegation and turn into a closed shop.
What do you think? Be sure to join the debate on our Facebook page.
ESPNscrum assistant editor Tom Hamilton argues the case for maintaining the status quo:
It's that time of the year when clubs who are fighting for their Premiership lives argue that relegation should be scrapped. Reasons such as a better quality of product and perhaps an increase in the chance of achieving European success are cited, but relegation is what makes the Aviva Premiership what it is - a league which keeps people glued to their seats from September through to the end of May.
From a purely armchair supporter point of view, the battle to escape from the clutches of relegation is almost as gripping as the quest for Premiership glory. Newcastle's tussle with Wasps has been mesmerising. The battle to avoid the drop will go down to the final match of the season with those two sides coming up against each other and while certain mathematical permutations put paid to a 'winner takes all' scenario, all eyes will be on Adams Park come May 5.
For those detractors arguing that abolishing relegation will allow the teams to shake off the shackles and play flawless end-to-end rugby then there is a white elephant in the room - Saracens. Last year's Premiership champions have so far this campaign scored less tries than eighth-placed Bath and conceded more tries than their West Country rivals - who have had a woeful season by their high standards. Sarries play a brand of rugby that is built on soaking up pressure, ruthless counter-attacking and kicking the points on offer. It's hardly thrilling but it is brutally effective. Would abolishing relegation cause them to start throwing the ball around more? No.
And then there's the Exeter Chiefs. When ring-fencing the Premiership was suggested a couple of years ago, it was Bristol who were red-hot favourites to re-take their place at the top table. The Chiefs were massive outsiders. But ask the rugby neutral what the story of the past two seasons has been and I would bet that the majority would opt for Exeter. They are now a well established Premiership side with a first-class infrastructure primed for Heineken Cup rugby next term and had the top 12 sides been given the luxury of a paranoia-free season then the Chiefs would still be playing Moseley away.
Perhaps therefore, it's only fair that the final word should go to their coach Rob Baxter when he was asked about relegation by a national newspaper. "For me it's what English sport is about, and we embrace it and get on with it. Why would we want to reinvent ourselves? The dogfights and coming through that kind of thing are what make English players what they are. Take that away and there wouldn't be another Exeter."
ESPNscrum's senior editor Graham Jenkins suggest it is time for a re-vamp:
The news that the UK has slipped back into recession is a clear reminder of the tough economic times we are living in and rugby union is not immune to those pressures. But English rugby's financial plight is not solely down to the fluctuations of the global economy.
Stability is the key to growth and the current threat of relegation from the Premiership ensures most of the country's leading clubs continue to teeter on the edge of a financial disaster. London Wasps - one of the most success-laden clubs in the country - stands on the brink of oblivion. Four times they have claimed the Premiership title in the last decade and they have also conquered Europe twice in that time but yet they are living hand to mouth and in danger of going bust.
Now, the prospect of relegation is of course not the only reason they find themselves staring into the abyss, but it must surely have been a major factor in their ability to capitalise on their on-field success and more importantly attract a new owner and significant investment right now. Profit and Premiership are not two words that currently sit comfortably together with only the likes of Leicester, Gloucester and Quins understood to be bucking the economic trend. The Premiership's inability to deliver decent returns - if any - means investment is as rare as a Saracens try.
As a result, investors have long been replaced by benefactors who are never going to see a return on their outlay. Take away the threat of relegation and suddenly long-term investment is back on the table. Clubs can then consolidate their business - both on and off the field - and plan for more than just a season.
And while financial security may not see the leading clubs immediately able to compete with the big pockets of the Top 14 or the Irish Rugby Football Union, the breathing room should be reflected on the field with teams more willing to gamble with their approach to the game. Instead of playing in the fear of losing and slipping ever closer to the second tier, players will have the freedom to express themselves. Entertaining rugby equals bigger crowds that should in turn show on the balance sheet.
An end to relegation will also benefit the national side whose fortunes more often than not act as a barometer for the sport as a whole. Without that threat the clubs will be more open to the development of young, home-grown players in favour of the signing of high-profile foreign names that may get the turnstiles clicking and will not be away half the season on international duty.
The financial question marks that hang over the second tier Championship add fuel to the fire. The fact that the competition continues without a title sponsor highlights the current commercial inadequacies while only one side in this season's play-off picture - Bristol - currently meet the entry criteria. Should Wasps implode and disappear down the rugby pyramid and Bristol fail to win the convoluted play-off could we see an 11-team Premiership next year?
Here are some of the best posts so far:
Pete Manning said: No, it should not - the teams in the lower table need the insentive to be able to move up - My local team Maidenhead have just won the South West 1 East champions and now move to National League 3 South West- the problem they have is that there is nothing inbetween as last time they won, the teams were too good and they moved down again and now back up, but without the insentive to be able to go "up" why would they bother playing at all?
Ross Tarbard said: Absolutely not. Exeter are only in their second season in the Prem and are pushing for a Heineken Cup spot. Worcester are a Premiership team, and have been up and down. Let's not forget that a few years back Harlequins were relegated, and are now leading the table. Why deny the likes of Bristol, Leeds, Bedford, Cornwall and so on the chance to compete?
Mark Baines said: Check out Super 15 - no relegation and top flight teams, because there is common interest with national RFU's and not conflict. It would also allow stable feeder structures from junior clubs. The trick would be agreeing the geographic spread, as the north and the west country both warrant proper representation from Newcastle to Cornwall. But remember Will Carlings 'old farts' are unlikely to share their power in their ivory towers.
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