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.

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