Written by Rugby Blindside
Reset and rebuild were the words used by Nigel Melville, Chairman of the Premiership Rugby Investor Board, after the RFU Council voted in favour of the COVID Recovery Plan. The plan, which is ‘aimed at improving the financial stability and sustainability of professional rugby during the next three seasons while also providing benefits for England Rugby and the community game’, was announced after the conclusion of the Premiership Rugby season.
The announcement can be argued as domestic rugby’s biggest change in its recent history, and an inevitable change that many have seen coming for a few years. Now the decision has been made we need to look at what impact this will have at the elite level (Premiership), middle level (Championship) and lower level (community rugby).
Some of the changes that have been introduced include the expansion of the Premiership to 14 clubs at the end of the 2021/22 season through the promotion (subject to meeting the required minimum standards) of the winner of the Championship, revised minimum standards criteria for clubs wishing to be promoted to the Premiership, a 2022/23 season in which no side will be relegated from or promoted to the new 14-team Premiership and a play-off in the 2023/24 season between the club finishing bottom of the Premiership and the winner of the Championship.
There is a desire across English sport for a merit-based league system that includes jeopardy. The feared American model of sport with franchises and a fixed team league system is something that is widely unwanted in English rugby. The ring-fencing conversation has been discussed by rugby fans up and down the country, with the majority being against the idea. However, the RFU have stressed that the change presented is not ring-fencing and that promotion and relegation will be re-introduced when the COVID Recovery Plan comes to its natural end.
It is understandable that there are concerns amongst rugby fans that the change is just a stepping stone to permanent ring-fencing and that the RFU may turn around and say in three years that ring-fencing is the way forward for the sport. I think the uproar if this were to happen would be extremely damaging for the RFU and the image of rugby as a whole. But if the RFU stick to their word and this is only a three-year plan, for me, it is the right move. It is a measured, sensible and realistic approach that addresses the problems faced by rugby clubs at the moment due to the pandemic and other factors.
The RFU is right in saying that Premiership Clubs are losing money. Even before the pandemic collective season-by-season losses were on the rise. In 2017 these losses exceeded £40m, in 2018 this rose to £50m and Premiership Clubs needed £88m in loans through the Government’s Winter Sports Survival package. This trend is worrying and stabilisation is needed. With a temporary pause on relegation clubs can stabilise their costs and look to establish long-term commercial partnership that can offer more certainty. Again, the importance is to make sure that this change is not permanent and is only a transitory solution to get clubs pointed in a positive direction again. If it’s only temporary I can see nothing but benefits for the clubs competing at the elite level.
An interesting point also outlined in the proposed change is: “revised minimum standards criteria for clubs wishing to be promoted to the Premiership”. The phrasing that stood out to me here is ‘wishing to be promoted’. The wording suggests that the RFU thinks that there are some clubs currently competing in the Championship that do not want to get promoted to the Premiership. It might be that the clubs in question do not currently have the means to compete at the elite level because of the current system and this is the reason they do not wish to be promoted. Or, the changes needed to become an elite club might also be too great for some clubs which makes it unrealistic.
Either way an honest appraisal of intentions by clubs at this level and the RFU is needed for the sport to grow. For me it’s a two-way street. If you’re a club that wants to compete at the highest level then you need to demonstrate this by meeting the RFU’s requirements. If a club does this, the RFU has to support their growth and development to becoming an elite club to help grow the game as a whole. Over the course of the next three years six clubs in the second tier of English rugby may prove that they have the resources and capability to compete at the elite level. If this happens then English rugby could be looking at having twenty elite clubs across two competitive leagues with promotion and relegation. Having a carefully managed production line of clubs turning professional and being able to sustain professionalism will grow the game.
The negative side for the proposed change is that I do not see the benefit, short-term or long-term, for clubs at the community level. The RFU is claiming that increased revenues from clubs at the top of the pyramid will feed down to the community game. This may happen but how much and its impact is very questionable. It’s obvious that the decision has been made with the professional game in mind and the community game is an after-thought.
For now, we can only wait and see if the announced changes to English rugby will work. My head tells me that changes were needed, my gut tells me that if done right this might work.