After a long, drawn-out and thoroughly meaningless process, it was finally confirmed last Wednesday that the Worcester Warriors will once again be playing in English rugby’s top tier next season. As a resident of the Faithful City and ardent supporter of the Warriors myself, I was of course delighted, but this whole season has highlighted to fans of many Championship and Premiership clubs alike the shortcomings of the domestic league structure.
Worcester beat easily their closest rivals, Cornish Pirates, 25-20 at Sixways Stadium having already taken the first leg in Penzance 12-21 – it was a final contested between the Championship’s top two sides, of that we are in no doubt, but in order to reach such a stage, it was necessary to play through a whole 22-game regular season, a six-match playoff structure and then a knockout competition. One has to wonder whether this is really fair – here we had a situation where Worcester, who won 30 out of their 31 games in the season, scoring more than 1000 points along the way, came within two minutes of going out against Bedford in a one-off ‘semi-final’ despite finishing a full 20 points clear at the top of the Championship table.
The situation was made all the more ludicrous by the fact that, by the semi-final stage, only Worcester out of the four teams left in the promotion race actually fulfilled the Premiership’s entry requirements. Whilst this might have given fans of Leeds Tykes hope that they might gain an unlikely relegation reprieve, it left the three Championship teams involved with little more to play for than stopping Worcester achieving promotion, making the playoffs an altogether meaningless exercise.
Rugby Union in England has suffered in the last few years from the dreaded ‘yo-yo’ situation, with one team each year dropping out of the top flight only to bounce straight back up again in the majority of cases. Though the RFU understandably wishes to avoid accusations of ‘ring-fencing’ the top flight, surely they could gain a lot more by looking towards the example of their nearest and dearest rivals, Rugby League. The Super League recently moved to a ‘franchise’ structure, abolishing promotion and relegation, expanding the top league and reviewing in three-year periods the teams involved in that league. Surely, this would be a better path for domestic Union to take – give the 12 existing Premiership teams, plus Worcester and another Championship side, the license to compete for three or so years in the same league, then after this time allow Championship sides to stake their claim for a place in the league. This would give teams at the lower end of the Premiership the security to expand and advance their rugby, whilst giving Championship sides a real incentive to improve and compete at the top level – the overall winner being English rugby. Though this may not be ideal for some Championship clubs who fancy a crack at the big-time, it has got to be an improvement on the current situation, which makes a mockery of the rest of the league season (Exeter Chiefs were promoted 12 months ago despite finishing behind Bristol in the league) and forever means that one team of Premiership standard faces a year wandering the English countryside battering the likes of Moseley, Coventry and Solihull.
It is doubtful any change in the structure of English rugby will be immediately forthcoming, but we have to wonder whether, by keeping the system we have now, we are doing detriment to our professional players, aspiring amateurs, and our national game.