Dave Craven: Union clubs at odds over the future of promotion and relegation

JUST as spring follows winter, so does talk of disbanding relegation when a raft of famous Premiership clubs are suddenly in peril.

The ring-fencing debate has implications for both Yorkshire Carnegie and Doncaster Knights (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)
The ring-fencing debate has implications for both Yorkshire Carnegie and Doncaster Knights (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

That is perhaps a little too cynical; the subject of ring-fencing has been on and off the agenda for almost as long as rugby union has been professional.

Yes, a cursory glance at the table does show just a dozen points currently separate Sale Sharks, in fifth, and bottom-placed Newcastle Falcons with former European Cup winners Wasps, Leicester Tigers, Bath and Northampton.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

All, theoretically, are in danger of being dragged into the mire although the stark reality is the battle will, once more, be between Newcastle, Worcester and Bristol, clubs which have all, in recent years, yo-yoed in between the top flight and the Championship.

Exeter Chiefs and the Premiership clubs could be part of a 14-team ring-fenced division (Picture: David Davies/PA Wire)

Still, with the vast financial implications involved, it is understandable why discussions in the top-flight inevitably, at some point, turn back to pulling the drawbridge up.

However, the present discourse is different again; Premiership Rugby is talking about relocating the entire castle so whether the drawbridge is up or down could soon be irrelevant.

It has been reported the top-flight clubs – plus relegated London Irish who currently lead the Championship – are considering a radical move away from the Rugby Football Union to form an ‘unregulated competition’ if the governing body refuses to scrap promotion and relegation.

Intentions have been sharpened following the injection of more than £200m by private equity firm CVC Capital Partners into Premier Rugby just before Christmas. There is real scope for the competition now to advance and the new investors want to make it a more global brand; no one wants to miss out on that given how big the pie now is.

Of course, it will not be easy to breakaway; there is still no formal proposal made and The Yorkshire Post understands the appetite for such an outlandish manoeuvre might be waning from some Premiership clubs.

Furthermore, it is barely two years since Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL) agreed an eight-year partnership with the RFU that itself is worth more than £200m and that would be jeopardised as well as the future of the England national team.

Yet it highlights how the sport is at a crucial juncture and why there is so much argument around. Clearly, many Championship clubs with Premiership ambitions are rightly indignant.

Ambitious Ealing Trailfinders, whose owner Mike Gooley has invested around £25m to see them rise up the leagues, has questioned whether ring-fencing would be unlawful and, along with Nottingham, Coventry and Cornish Pirates, threatened to take legal action if PRL push ahead. Ealing sit second and, though their current home is not up to Premiership standards and they are nine points behind Irish, they plan to move if they do manage to chase down their rivals.

Clearly, Yorkshire Carnegie is the club you would presume would be keen to make sure promotion and relegation is not dumped. They were demoted in 2011 and, unlike the previous two occasions, are still yet to return although the plan is to target 2019-20 as the campaign to do it.

However, Sir Ian McGeechan, the former British Lions coach who is their executive chairman, has publicly stated he would not be averse to ring-fencing “if it’d help encourage better rugby, and greater stability both from a business and player perspective.”

He states many Championship clubs do not have a desire to go up but those who do must be allowed the chance to grow and advance. McGeechan suggests ring-fencing for a period of four years would work well for Championship clubs who want to prepare correctly for the move up plus Premiership sides who need to grow their business with no drop threat annually looming. Yet, as rugby league discovered with its now-disbanded licensing programme, there is always issues with the process: namely who decides who gets in and out?

Furthermore, it was not even mentioned at the Championship board meeting on Tuesday when RFU interim CEO Nigel Melville was present to update clubs.

It emerged there was no real update; there is still no proposal from Premier Rugby to discuss.

Still, there was a consensus the Championship is vehemently against promotion and relegation being disbanded. Unsurprisingly, only Irish expressed their desire for it to go after this season.

Having reached the 2016 Championship Final, Doncaster Knights are a club that has Premiership aspirations but, as they stated last year, will only push for it if more money is filtered down beforehand to improve their chances of then staying up.

It would be great to see a Broad Acres club in the elite again but naive to think the current elite won’t make their move soon.

Then things could get really messy.