Is the solution to rugby union’s warring factions, “A British-Irish Big League”?

This blog was written by Robert Kitson on Sportsblog in The Guardian

Memories are short at moments like this. It is only a year since English rugby was omnipotent, in possession of almost as many title belts as Anthony Joshua. Ireland had not won a European club crown since 2012 and Wales last had a semi-finalist nine years ago. Now, suddenly, the Pro14 has three representatives in the last four and the Premiership’s horizontal heavyweights lie strewn across the canvas.

It could just be a blip. One bad season does not require the English to throw in the towel indefinitely. Fair play to Leinster, Munster and Scarlets but let’s wait and see what unfolds over the next couple of years before leaping to premature conclusions. It is amazing the difference a little extra motivation and some fresh, talented young forwards can make. Newcastle is due to host the 2019 Champions Cup final; it is way too early to assume there will be no Premiership representation.

Champions Cup pulled into firing line in Premiership ring-fencing wrangle

To watch Leinster knock out Saracens on Easter Sunday, even so, was to be struck by the futility of the wearisome Pro14 v Premiership debate. Who, ultimately, benefits from ‘my league’s better than yours’ willy-waving? Both camps should instead be looking 10 or 20 years down the track. How can professional club rugby in these islands become not just sustainable but commercially vibrant in potentially uncertain times? Should there be fewer or more pro teams in England? What is the most obvious way of uniting the current warring factions, making significant organisational savings and raising playing standards and interest across the board? There is one simple answer: an amalgamated British and Irish league.

Ignore, for a second, the shrill complaints of those in favour of ring-fencing the existing English Premiership; increasingly that feels like a narrow, old testament argument. Instead, imagine a bolder, rebranded alternative – and the marketeers can have this for free – called the Big League. The ideal format will always be a matter of debate but two tiers of 12, determined by end-of-season placings from recent years, would be my preference. In year one the top league might look something like this: Leinster, Munster, Scarlets, Glasgow, Ulster, Ospreys, Saracens, Exeter, Wasps, Leicester, Bath and Newcastle.

Two teams would be relegated at the end of each season, with two promoted. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the supporting cast initially included Northampton, Gloucester, Harlequins, Sale Sharks, Worcester, Bristol, London Irish, Edinburgh, Cardiff Blues, Dragons and Connacht, along with a 12th franchise. The involvement of teams from South Africa, Italy and the United States might be a short-term necessity for contractual reasons but, longer term, there should be scope for ambitious, well-run sides from closer to home. Killing any prospect of professional rugby union ever taking hold in, say, North Wales, Yorkshire or Cornwall would be silly.

And the small print? A realistic, mutually beneficial salary cap, incentives for playing homegrown players and a guaranteed 22 regular season games per year, with the existing Anglo-Welsh Cup replaced by a predominantly U23 tournament (with no more than half a dozen over-age players permitted in a matchday 23) staged as double-headers with better-promoted women’s fixtures on international weekends. Summer weekends would feature a thriving club sevens league across Britain and Ireland, with the aim of unearthing fresh talent for future Olympic squads. Clubs would be buzzing, communities engaged and the game’s grassroots re-fertilised.

In addition, it would help preserve the British and Irish Lions from the circling hyenas. Fixture lists, finally, could be collectively tweaked every four years to give a touring Lions party the best possible preparation. Contentious selections would also be reduced: the best players across the four home unions would be confronting each other more often, rather than merely in the Six Nations. The European Champions’ Cup would still maintain its point of difference, with the leading French sides continuing to pile in as before.

With any luck, too, professional rugby’s various stakeholders would start to look less like a sackful of greedy ferrets. Rival unions might finally cease nipping each other’s fingers and work together for the common good; the Premiership clubs, currently losing around £20m collectively per annum, might finally stumble towards the promised land. Television deals would be less piecemeal and more joined up; new sponsors would be suitably intrigued. The inaugural Big League final could generate interest in places which previously cared little for rugby. More of the world’s best players would be involved and refereeing interpretations, at least in theory, would no longer contrast so starkly between one league and another. The intense cross-border passions roused during the Six Nations would continue to smoulder all season long.

Will it ever happen? Don’t hold your breath. But now is the time for rugby to open its eyes rather than be blinded by parochial thinking. It is in no one’s interests for the Pro14 to outgrow the Premiership or vice versa. The two leagues, instead, should appreciate that working together could pay significant long-term dividends. Everyone relishes the local derby element of the Premiership but might there be even more attractive options out there? To be at a sold-out Aviva Stadium on Sunday, with Leinster and Saracens contesting a game of Test level intensity, was to gain a tantalising glimpse of that elusive future. Rather than being jealous, all of British rugby should be heartened by Ireland’s recent rise. The moral of this season’s story? If you can’t beat them, join ‘em.

Major Changes to the Championship

The plot/future thickens! there is no doubt in my mind that at some stage in the near future there will be a change to the league structure in Rugby Union in England.

My personal thoughts are that it will be a Moratorium on promotion and relegation rather than a complete ceaseation. It may also see an amalgamation of the Welsh and English clubs into a Super Competition of two Leagues of 8 clubs in each “area” league. That would be 16 clubs  fully financed and supported with no relegation or promotion between. Play your area Home & Away and the other area just once, alternating Home & Away biannually giving you 22 games.

Here are some more thoughts from the Independent

MAJOR changes to the Championship, including a hugely controversial moratorium on promotion and relegation, look to be on the cards after it was revealed that consultants hired by the RFU to review all aspects of the struggling competition are set to report their findings.

At the most recent RFU Council meeting on February 9, Nigel Melville, the Union’s professional rugby director, is minuted as saying: ‘Consultants EY have met with all Championship stakeholders and will complete their report, which will include recommendations, shortly.

‘The report will cover subjects including wage to income ratios; the effectiveness of the Championship as a development tool; the increasing gap between the Premiership and Championship; ring-fencing and promotion/relegation amongst other areas.’

When I spoke to Melville last week, I asked him about the Championship and whether ring-fencing was on the cards?

He replied: “There’ll be promotion and relegation this year – one-up, one-down – but we need to set in stone by the end of this season what’s happening next year.

“What we don’t want to do, though, is cut the Championship off so there’s no chance of a team coming through like an Exeter.

“It’s always got to be aspirational in some way and there are mechanisms we can put in place to ensure that if a club has the means and facilities to play in the Premiership, they could make their way up there.”

Whichever way you look at this, you do not need to be a soothsayer to work out that, reading between the lines, a moratorium on promotion and relegation is imminent.

In many ways that is sad but at the current time, with so few Championship clubs possessing the facilities or inclination to push for the top flight, it is somewhat inevitable.

Having been starved of proper funding for so long, many second-tier clubs have fallen by the wayside – Plymouth, Moseley and Rotherham being prime examples – and many of the others can loosely be described as being on life-support pending some kind of rescue attempt.

I’d probably put the Cornish Pirates into that category because without the Stadium for Cornwall it’s hard to see how they could survive as a professional outfit.

In which case, given the outpost nature of their location, a slide back into the regional leagues would seem inevitable.

That’s why, in the Pirates’ case, Cornwall Council need to get behind their plans and help find the money to build the stadium.

Yes, I hear the howls from the vocal minority about taxpayers’ money and all that, but this is about the future of professional sport in Cornwall.

If, as seems likely, a door is left ajar for clubs to force their way into the Premiership by meeting set criteria by a certain date in future – say 2021 or 2022 – the stadium needs putting in place within the next two years to prevent the Duchy becoming a sporting backwater.

Another reason why a moratorium on promotion and relegation looks sensible at this time is the amount of money Premiership clubs are losing, which based on the financial results I’ve seen so far could hit around £25m for the year ending 2016-17 – a huge amount!

Aside from Exeter Chiefs, who are defying the national trend by declaring regular profits, the other 11 clubs are losing money and I was astonished recently when Harlequins, who boast one of the league’s biggest turnovers at over £20m, declared a loss of £4.8m.

That’s staggering really, but they are not alone and you’ll find most Premiership clubs now are losing between £1m and £5m, depending on their wage bills and income.

It’s no surprise to discover that player wages, caused by some ridiculous recent rises in the salary cap, account for good portions of the shortfall, but regardless of the cause, what must be acknowledged is that top-flight rugby in its current form is unsustainable.

Promotion and relegation, with its draining effects on resources and staff turnover, is one of the root causes of the problem, which is why until enough Championship clubs are in a position to make a real go of top-flight rugby rather than tinkering at it, things must change.

Binning promotion and relegation for a while will not suit the purists, but even Pirates fans must admit their club needs to be in a far better position before it can go up.

Will Greenwood believes RFU are split over Premiership future

This is what Will Greenwood thinks about the future of rugby organisation going forward and its slow but sure move to a form of ring fencing.

The England Rugby football union are split over ambitions to make the Aviva Premiership a closed shop and do away with promotion and relegation, according to Will Greenwood.

The controversial plan is the subject of much debate again after London Irish vowed to resist any pressure to sell their stake in the Aviva Premiership from rival clubs who want to establish a 12-team competition.

It is understood that a group of influential clubs owners have raised the idea of pulling up the drawbridge on the top-tier of English rugby by ending promotion and relegation.

And their latest radical ringfencing proposal would effectively kill off the top-flight ambitions of one of England’s leading professional clubs.

Speaking on The Offload, former England star and Sky Sports pundit, Will Greenwood described the move as “empire building” but warned that a form of such a move was a “definite possibility.”

Asked about the motivation behind the idea in general Greenwood said: “In a cold hard, dirty way – cash. In reality, stability and in order to be able to grow the business and invest in the future.

“You look at some of the power and the men and women involved at the highest level and these people go for it. And aren’t afraid to fail, but take the big punt, roll the dice and gamble big,…[it’s] definitely a possibility I think.”

He added: “The vast majority of owners get involved in rugby because they see a massively burgeoning sport. Huge television demand, an increase in television contracts, desire of southern hemisphere players to come from south to north and play in these leagues up here.

“Eyeballs, bums on seats, tickets, food and beverage, bigger stadiums, conference facilities, grow it.

“Grow empires – that’s at the heart of it.

“If you have that constant threat that somewhere along the line, five or six of your best players could pick up influenza and be out for the whole season and suddenly a top side gets relegated out of the trap door, then you begin to get into problems with all your five-year plans, your 10-year plans!”

But Greenwood suggested the proposal has led to division in England rugby headquarters.

The current position with the England Rugby Football Union is that they support promotion and relegation [but] they are open to discussions about other possible structures,” he said.

England Rugby Football Union CEO Steve Brown

“The RFU are split – there is a Corinthian element still in the RFU that represents hundreds and hundreds of district councils, grassroots clubs, who at the heart of it would take it as an absolute imposition on them if relegation/promotion ceased to exist.

“It’s part of the very fabric of English rugby.

“The reason Steve Brown is leaving it open is that the RFU is now a financial beast and it is also a massive business that churns over huge sums of money in order to put it back into grass roots and do what’s best for clubs.

Greenwood said that while the conversations were on-going, clubs would be at pains to keep their plans under wraps.

“I think there is strength in numbers and stick together and you don’t necessarily want to be the mouth piece for something that has a real ability to alienate a lot of people.

“English sport tends to be based not around the franchise model of American football and baseball, around promotion and relegation, the little guy having a chance. The David taking on Goliath.

“I’ve always been a big fan of promotion and relegation. I’ve always been a fan of aspirations and having the ability to see the stars and shoot for them and I think the best example of that over the years has been Exeter Chiefs coming through the leagues under the guidance of Rob Baxter and it shows that ability to keep making the step up.

“That’s at the heart of my basis. It doesn’t mean that I am not deaf to the other arguments of why you should ring fence.”

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