This seasons Premiership has seen significant advancement in the seemingly ever present ‘ring-fencing’ debate. Ring-fencing, entails a restructure at the top of the pyramid of English rugby in which promotion and relegation would be removed. Debate has been inflamed for a number of reasons, namely the unpredictable nature of this seasons table, and as a response to investment from private equity firm CVC, who purchased a 27 percent stake in Premiership Rugby just before Christmas.
Currently, the gap between 5th and the relegation spot (12th) is just 11 points. Which makes this seasons Premiership particularly tight. Especially given that 11 points is almost achievable through two bonus point wins. Therefore it is highly conceivable that, with a poor run of form, one of the big clubs could be relegated. In this climate, Premiership owners, such as Bath owner Bruce Craig, have taken the lead in campaigning to remove relegation from the Premiership.
These clamours are catalysed by the CVC money, Premiership owners have become tentative about the possibility of their club dropping down to the Championship and missing out on the influx of money from the investment. This money will make premiership clubs richer than ever, and consequently, the disparity between Premiership clubs greater than ever. Only 3 Championship clubs have aspirations for promotion - Cornish Pirates, Ealing Trailfinders and London Irish. Of which, only Irish have a stadium which meets the capacity requirements to play in the Premiership. These clubs could be left in the wake of this new deal.
In this light, ring-fencing makes sense. It would allow the Premiership to grow as a franchise, in a similar model to the NFL or Southern Hemisphere Super Rugby. It would also allow teams such as London Irish to benefit more greatly from their academy products. Often experienced players are preferred to young players due to every match being absolutely crucial. Also, in the event of relegation, these teams are poached of their talent. Bath’s Joe Cokanasiga was the latest in a long line of Former London Irish Academy players to leave the club for another Premiership team last summer. The theory is that ring-fencing would give young players more opportunity to break through. Teams towards the foot of the table would no longer have anything to play for, leaving opportunity to experiment with young blood.
Despite these few benefits, I firmly believe it cannot be allowed to happen. This season has been arguably the most competitive season the Premiership has ever seen. A significant majority of the clubs are still in the relegation fight and aiming for the Champions Cup spots and the play-offs, it is a fantastic advert for the game of rugby in England. In a ring fenced Premiership, the clubs at the bottom would have nothing to play for and the quality of matches would waver towards the end of the season. This is exactly what happens in the Pro14 and Super Rugby, which fail to attract the interest that they should do, particularly in Wales. As the old cliché goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
In a ring-fenced Premiership, London Irish would most likely be pulled up to the big time, forming a 13 team league. This is ludicrous as it demands that there will always be one team without an opposition every weekend. How would that fit into the already tight schedule that World Rugby runs? The Premiership final already clashes with the requirements of the International teams leading into the Summer tours.
The fluidity between the top of the league pyramid and the bottom is something to be proud of, theoretically any club could make it to the top. This is what makes English rugby so competitive. No club is a greater advocate of the possibilities of the promotion/relegation system than Exeter chiefs. In 2017, Exeter Chiefs reached the pinnacle of English club rugby by lifting the Premiership trophy. This was a remarkable feat given that just 21 years beforehand they would have been found playing in Courage League 4 - the fourth tier (where Canterbury RFC play at the moment). Ring-fencing would make it impossible for anything as remarkable as this to ever happen again in English rugby. As sports fans, we love the story of the underdog and the up and coming. High aspirations should be encouraged throughout the pyramid and this starts at the top.
The Premiership is already a stellar product, this season is a prime example, for me, ring-fencing would undermine the product. Good arguments can be made for expanding the number of teams in the league at some point in the future, especially if clubs such as Coventry, Yorkshire Carnegie, Pirates and Ealing can make the Championship more competitive. However, they are not ready for that now. Ring-fencing contradicts British sporting tradition, which is something that franchises like the NFL and Super Rugby long for. The system is not perfect, but it is a lot better than the alternatives.