A new look for British & Irish club rugby

Professional club rugby is at a crossroads. The game is growing slowly, but the constant comparison with football’s Premier League provides a dim view on its progress. Currently the British and Irish game is divided and there is a competitive environment being created in which the Premiership and Pro14 are competing for audiences and sponsorship revenue. The current state-of-play in society means we are all trying to come together and work as one to defeat a common enemy (COVID-19). My questions is: can club rugby learn from this? This would mean both leagues working together to create a combined league system for the benefit of the game and fans.

The Premiership and Pro14 currently includes twenty-two British and Irish clubs. The idea would be to create a tiered league system with two divisions of eleven clubs each. These would be Division 1 and Division 2 – They would adopt the promotion and relegation league format rather than the conference style currently played in the Pro14.

Which club goes in which division would be arranged via a qualification process. For example, to determine the eleven clubs for Division 1 the following could occur. At the end of a season the top six in the Premiership, the top two in Conference A and B of the Pro14 and a playoff match between the two clubs finishing third in each Conference of the Pro14 would result in the eleven Division 1 clubs. The remaining eleven clubs would play in Division 2.

There would be twenty rounds of games for each division. Each team would play ten home games and ten away games against teams within their division. The points structure would follow the same standard used within the game: four points for a win, two for a draw and bonus points.

At the end of the season the club with most points in Division 1 would be crowned ‘Division 1 Champions’ – the best team in Britain and Ireland. Bragging rights that I’m sure many clubs would dream of having. Teams finishing in tenth and eleventh position in Division 1 would be relegated to Division 2. The top two teams in Division 2 would be promoted to Division 1, with the team finishing in first place in Division 2 going up as ‘Promotion Champions’.

Here’s an example of what the divisions could look like:

*Example Division 1 and Division 2 structure based on positions finished in Premiership and Pro14 2019/20 seasons.

**Play-off game between Glasgow Warriors and Scarlets would determine Division assignment.

The inclusion of promotion and relegation to the league format adds jeopardy. This is one of the most important aspects of any sport. It will increase competition amongst the clubs as well as fan engagement with the game. This will lead to a more attractive ‘product’ and therefore more money will be pumped into the game via tv revenue, sponsorship and attendance/viewership will rise. A more successful professional game will also positively impact the grassroots level.

Having two divisions also means that the qualification for European cup competitions is simplified. Currently thirteen teams from the Premiership and Pro14 qualify for Europe’s leading cup competition – the European Rugby Champions Cup. Nine British and Irish teams play in the secondary competition – the European Rugby Challenge Cup.  In this new format a 50/50 split would be proposed where eleven clubs would qualify for each competition. Teams finishing first – ninth in Division 1 and the two promoted teams from Division 2 would qualify for the following seasons Champions Cup. Conversely, the two relegated teams and the nine teams that finished third – eleventh in Division 2 would qualify for the Challenge Cup.

This European qualification process will also increase competition and excitement. The thought of being relegated and not competing in the top domestic tier or top European Cup competition would weigh heavy on clubs, especially those that consider themselves to be the ‘big’ clubs.

Some may say that this new format might isolate lower league clubs in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales that are semi-pro or on the cusp of pushing for professionalism. Admittedly, yes this might happen at first. However, as the new two Division league format develops and thrives this could birth an additional eleven team Division 3. This could be populated with teams from the English Championship, Welsh Premiership, Ireland’s All Ireland leagues and Scotland’s new Forsoc Super 6. 

In addition to the new league format a new British and Irish domestic cup competition could be established. There’s an opportunity here to create an FA Cup-style cup competition in which lower league clubs can get a big draw against top level clubs. The domestic cup could include all clubs at national playing levels in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Like the FA Cup, the lower league clubs could compete in the earlier rounds and the bigger teams enter later on in the competition. The competition would bring the grassroots and professional game closer together. It would provide the opportunity for a revenue boost for smaller clubs with a big club fixture tie or just give national clubs in different countries a new opportunity to ply their trade against each other.

Unifying the British and Irish club game could do wonders for the sport. Of course, there could be some teething problems at first but down the line I think each nation would reap the rewards at both the professional and grassroots level.

Written by Will Roberts

This article appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Rugby Blindside magazine – Read the full issue here