WITH the sort of timing England could only have wished for against Italy last weekend, the RFU have announced that Championship play-off rugby will be disbanded next season in favour of a return to the first-past-the-post method of promotion.
The decision’s public scheduling is so delicious because Yorkshire Carnegie and London Irish – the favourites to reach May’s play-off final to battle for the solitary Premiership slot – face each other at Headingley tomorrow.
Leaders Irish are all but certain of finishing top having won all 15 league games since suffering relegation last term and especially given nearest rivals Carnegie head into this fixture having lost back-to-back games for the first time this campaign.
After surprise defeats at home to Cornish Pirates and at Jersey, they are now 15 points adrift, although, of course, that ultimately remains immaterial given it is the top-four that play-off at the end to decide the champions.
That will change, though, in 2017-18 after the RFU Council approved a three-season plan to remove the end-of- season play-off system – in place since 2010 – and instead deem whoever finishes top as champions.
They will be promoted the following season if they satisfy the minimum standards criteria of the premier club competition and the new format was agreed and supported by the RFU, the Greene King IPA Championship clubs – although not all of them – and Premier Rugby.
There are clear ramifications. For instance, Carnegie, who were relegated from the top-flight in 2011, now know realistically this season is their best chance for the next four, at least, to finally achieve promotion.
In reality, if they fail, whoever is relegated this term – bottom two Worcester and Bristol face each other tomorrow for added symmetry – will be quickly installed as clear favourites to earn an immediate return. Life gets tougher.
With their greater spending power, squad quality and the fact the uncertainty of a top-four side upsetting them over the two-legged final, as Doncaster Knights so nearly did to Bristol last year, will be removed, points to that.
Granted, as a sweetener, the RFU and Premiership Rugby have now provided Championship clubs increased funds.
That is also aimed at assuaging the simmering feud between the competitions after the second-tier was almost ignored when the RFU and Premier Rugby agreed a £200m deal last July. Furthermore, there will be the chance to secure meritocracy payments based on the clubs’ final position in the table to ensure competition amongst them throughout the entirety of the season.
Still, some clubs, including Doncaster, are far from happy with the arrangement; they prefer the chance of glory to pound, shilling and pence. Yet, with the new system, there are obvious benefits for those who do get promoted, most crucially the ability to start recruiting ahead of the next campaign much earlier.
That works the same for those who aren’t going up, too; currently, four clubs will still not know which division they are playing in in 2017-18 until late May.
Championship clubs chairman Geoff Irvine said: “This agreement, which is fixed for the next three seasons, provides a period of stability and continuity which will enable the RFU, Premiership Rugby and the Greene King IPA Championship clubs to engage in meaningful dialogue to further relationships and develop initiatives for the mutual benefit of both parties.”
Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty added: “It’s vital any club being promoted from the Championship is as prepared as it can be to compete, given the quality and intensity of Premiership Rugby.
“The current play-off system does not always help with that whereas a return to first-past-the-post will provide the potential for more advanced planning and recruitment.”
Carnegie’s executive president Sir Ian McGeechan backed the decision but his club has been forced into a major change ahead of tomorrow’s game that also precedes a British & Irish Cup quarter-final at Irish next Saturday.
Fly-half Joe Ford, who has started every league game this term, is out with a knee injury so Bryan Redpath gives a debut to Tom Catterick, newly signed on loan from Newcastle Falcons.
Incidentally, long-serving No 8 Ryan Burrows, announced this week he would join Newcastle in the Premiership next term.
“Jimmy (Lowes) was frank and admitted Carnegie couldn’t guarantee me Premiership rugby; I had to take this chance – but I still think we can up, too,” he said.
They need to and a shock victory tomorrow would act as a massive boost towards achieving that.