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AHEAD of their crunch tie with table-toppers London Irish, Yorkshire Carnegie executive chairman Ian McGeechan has welcomed a return to automatic promotion from the Championship in 2017-18.

Ian McGeechan.
Ian McGeechan.

The RFU announced yesterday that Championship play-off rugby – in effect since 2010 – will be disbanded next season in favour of a return to the first-past-the-post method of promotion.

It is apt timing given unbeaten Irish, relegated last term, face second-placed Carnegie at Headingley tomorrow as their battle ahead of the play-offs heats up.

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McGeechan said: “Obviously this season we will be doing everything possible to achieve our goal of reaching the Aviva Premiership.

Joe Ford.

“However, having been part the play-off system for a number of years, I am pleased to see the return of the first past-the-post system.

“The decision to make this announcement now is particularly welcome for all the clubs and allows the Championship sides the opportunity to get their financial and planning in place for 2017-18 at the right time of year.

“Everyone in the Championship will go into next season knowing what they need to do to get promoted and the team that gains promotion will need to be consistent throughout a long, hard campaign.”

Leaders Irish are all but certain of finishing top having won all 15 league games so far and especially given nearest rivals Carnegie head into this fixture having lost back-to-back games for the first time this campaign.

Joe Ford.

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 cuently 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 and 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 earn promotion.

As a sweetener, the RFU and Premiership Rugby have now provided Championship clubs increased funds and there is a chance to secure meritocracy payments based on the clubs’ final position to ensure competition amongst them throughout the entirety of the season.

Fly-half Joe Ford, who has started every league game this term, is ruled out of tomorrow’s televised game with a knee injury so Bryan Redpath gives a debut to Tom Catterick, just signed on loan from Newcastle Falcons this week.

Full-back Chris Elder returns from injury to replace Stevie McColl while Mike Mayhew starts instead of Phil Nilsen at hooker and Mike Myerscough returns in place of lock Dean Schofield.