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All Aboard English Club Rugby’s Gravy Train? No Thank You

06 Mar | BY Betway | MIN READ TIME |
All Aboard English Club Rugby’s Gravy Train? No Thank You

Meaningful sport is built on success and failure. These ingredients are essential, not optional.

Exeter play London Welsh in the Aviva Premiership on Saturday. Enjoy it while you can. You might not be able to for much longer. If England’s top clubs get their way, matches between clubs that have risen up the league pyramid will become a relic of the past.

There is a proposal lurking to ring-fence the top division, put an end to promotion and relegation. Essentially turn the Premiership into a closed shop. That would bring an end to the opportunity for an ambitious club to follow the path taken by Exeter, who rose from the lower reaches to their current position of third place in the top flight. Nor would clubs be able to ape the achievements of London Welsh who, against all expectation, navigated the second tier play-offs to take their shot at the big time. Instead there would be a league in which clubs not good enough to challenge for trophies simply stagnate – and wait for the next season to do it all again.

Imagine the excitement of seeing Newcastle and London Irish, say, slug it out safe in the knowledge there is nothing at stake, no jeopardy riding on the result. Better still, imagine the indifference. In fact you don’t need to. Just look across to the United States where promotion and relegation is anathema to professional team sport. Take the Tampa Bay Rays franchise in Major League Baseball. The club has never won a World Series and last year finished 19 wins off top spot in the American League East. The Rays play their home games at Tropicana Field Stadium with its capacity of 34,078. The average gate for 2014: 17,857.

There is an argument for removing the fear of relegation to improve player welfare. By taking away the pressure not to finish last, and the financial implication of dropping out of the top division, players could be given longer and more frequent rest periods to mend their battered bodies. But if you reduce the competitive pressure by pulling up the drawbridge, is it not inevitable that competitive standards across the league will also fall? Perhaps not in the top half, where there are titles and European places at stake, but down amongst the no-longer-dead-men.

Look at this season in the Premiership. With London Welsh having yet to win a game, the threat of relegation has effectively been lifted for the other 11 clubs. As a consequence, fans of Newcastle Falcons and London Irish have had very little to get excited about. 10th and 11th respectively in the league, they sit 22 points above the condemned (Welsh) and 21 points off of the top-four play-off positions. Across the pond, the NFL operates a television ‘blackout rule’ which dictates that if a game is not sold out 72 hours prior to its start time, it cannot be televised locally.

Perhaps English rugby can introduce that as a deterrent against apathy. Alternatively, it can leave the sanctity and fear of relegation alone. As a product the Premiership has never been better.