Grounds for joining elite are cause for concern

Rotherham's first ever night match at the Don Valley Stadium
Rotherham's first ever night match at the Don Valley Stadium
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If the first two-thirds of the Championship season have told us anything, it is that it will be a struggle to get anything more than a cigarette paper between the top eight teams.

Anyone can beat anyone in the race for promotion and the campaign’s play-offs are a mouth-watering prospect.

Yet the bigger picture is that of the eight teams who will fight to win the league – three of which are from Yorkshire – only three can earn promotion to the Aviva Premiership.

They are Leeds Carnegie, Bristol and Nottingham.

The other five fall into two sub-divisions; hopeful and unready, with the White Rose represented in both.

For the Rugby Football Union and Premier Rugby Limited set strict criteria for entry into their 12-team top flight. There are six categories to fulfil those minimum criteria; ground move and ground tenure are the most pertinent and the ones that have caused most problems in the past, most notably for Rotherham Titans, who fell foul of red tape in 2002.

The key points of the ground issues are the only ones the two governing bodies make public. The four remaining categories – which are not fully disclosed – cover administration and management, facilities (excluding medical facilities), medical and safety. Infrastructure, youth development and community presence are also taken into account.

Clubs have until March 1 to inform the RFU and PRL if they want a full audit of their credentials. Applications must then be made by March 31.

Rotherham have made some big statements on the pitch and have been very vocal in the backing of head coach Andre Bester and his squad.

However, they suffered a body blow last week when negotiations to take up tenancy at Millmoor – where they played during their ill-fated last campaign in the Premiership in 2003-04 – broke down.

Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield appears their likely destination and will be the first ground they put on their application form.

If they can convince the RFU and PRL they will be the primary tenants of the athletics venue – it already satisfies the minimum 10,000 capacity demand – they would go a long way to sealing their approval.

Titans chief executive Rob Hannon said: “We have been in discussions with other grounds and those negotiations are still ongoing and I am certain that should we succeed in our goal and ambition of becoming a Premiership club, we will have various options of grounds that meet the RFU criteria.”

Doncaster’s ambition is to eventually get to the Premiership, which leaves them for now, in the ‘not ready’ sub-division.

Castle Park does not meet the criteria and the club also fall short when measured against some of the other requirements.

Sharing the town’s Keepmoat Stadium might not even be viable because the club would not have primacy of tenure.

Knights chief executive David Ryall said: “Our goal is to identify how far short of the criteria we are and then assess what we need to do to satisfy those.”

Leeds comfortably qualify, having spent eight of the last 10 seasons in the top flight, a spell that has earned them full shareholder status in Premier Rugby.

Bristol, likewise, are Premiership stalwarts albeit ones fallen on hard times. After 15 games of the regular season, they are, on paper, favourites to win promotion.

The last of the annointed trio, Nottingham, have been in and around the promotion picture for four or five years.

They failed the audit last year, allegedly on the grounds that they did not have enough sinks in their toilet block, which sums up the hoops clubs will be made to jump through.

But, due to their ground share with Notts County FC at Meadow Lane, they are understood to satisfy the RFU and Premier Rugby criteria for 2012-13.

London Welsh fall into Rotherham’s category. The Exiles have been in exploratory discussions to relax the March 31 deadline for fear that it can lead to financial ruin for clubs chasing the dream.

Welsh chief executive John Taylor said: “What we have done is inform the RFU we are working on a plan that we hope by March 31 will satisfy their minimal requirement and that we do want to be considered for promotion.”

Cornish Pirates, last season’s beaten Championship finalists, are the surprise inclusion in the pool alongside Doncaster, treading water.

They were all set to make a concerted push for promotion until last week when they reluctantly confirmed their plans for a new stadium or a suitable ground share had been put on ice for another 12 months.

Joining the Knights and Pirates are Bedford, a side who have had their fingers burned in the past in the Premiership, when they nearly went to the wall.

Theirs is a salutary tale, as is Rotherham’s, after their near-financial meltdown following relegation from the Premiership in 2004.

Bedford’s Goldington Road pitch also has a severe slope and it is matters on those Championship pitches where the defining criteria – of who is the best team – will be decided.

The two-legged promotion play-off final is scheduled for May 23 and 30.

But in the race for promotion, March 31 will be equally significant.