The Aviva Premiership remains one of the most competitive leagues in world rugby, yet failure to adapt could be holding back the competitions progress.
The reason for the Premiership remaining so competitive over the years is that the governing body of the league have ensured that all 12 teams competing do so on a relatively even playing field. Salary caps, foreign player limits, EQP (English qualified player) payments and academy credits all help ensure each of the 12 teams remain relatively competitive each season.
Unfortunately this regulation by the powers that be is the very same reason that teams coming up from the second tier of English rugby begin their campaign at an immediate disadvantage. The case of London Welsh two years ago helped to highlight the issues as they were initially denied entry to the Premiership after winning the Championship because of a technicality based around primacy of tenure at their home ground.
This kind of unnecessary ring fencing combined with the excessive play-off system in the Championship mean that teams coming up are faced with a shortened window in which to build a team to prepare for Premiership survival. The same issues have befallen Welsh this year as they desperately seek to acquire players to bolster their Championship squad ahead of the new season, long after the other Premiership clubs have completed their recruitment.
Bristol looked to buck the trend this season as they began bolstering their squad with Premiership proven talent before the play-offs had even begun at the end of the Championship season regular. Unfortunately this tactic has backfired spectacularly as Bristol fell at the final hurdle as they lost out to London Welsh in the play-off final. This now means a number of Bristols new recruits are looking at break clauses and loans for the season ahead.
The first issue to address here clearly is that teams coming up from the Championship need far longer to prepare for life in the Premiership. This means cutting down on the two legged semi and final situation and bringing the play-offs forward by several weeks. This would allow the promoted club adequate time in which to begin their recruitment after guaranteeing promotion whilst players are still available to sign.
I do however believe that we are now at the point were we need to look at extending the Premiership to 14 teams. Both Worcester Warriors who were relegated and Bristol who missed out in the play-off final look to have squads more than capable of competing in the Premiership. It seems unfathomable that at least one of these teams that contain so many quality players will be spending at least the next two season in the Championship.
To me the answer to this seems simple, extend the Premiership to 14 teams with two up and two down each season ensuring that we don’t have squads of such quality out of the top tier for too long. By allowing Worcester of Bristol to spend the next two season in the Championship it is almost a guarantee that a number of their best players will seek moves elsewhere thereby weakening the squad ahead of a potential return to the Premiership.
Now there are obvious pitfalls to extending the Premiership, the two biggest of which are time and money. Time as in having to fit an additional 4 games a season in per team and money as in the extra demand placed on players by the additional games meaning the need for enlargement of playing squads. Both of these issues can be resolved with a few simple adjustments however which may benefit the English game as a whole.
The LV=Cup is the central issue here, and one which can be easily resolved to the benefit of English rugby. I’m not suggesting that we cancel the tournament however, simply that it is returned to serving its original purpose. What I would propose is that the LV=Cup is once again designated as a development tournament. This would reduce the impact on the main playing squad whilst giving younger players additional competitive opportunities.
It would therefore be the case that only players 23 years of age and under are able to represent their club in the LV=Cup. The squad would be named at the beginning of the season and any English players within it would be exempt from the salary cap. Players from the clubs Premiership squad would not be able to play in the LV=Cup based on this unless there is a significant injury that keeps players out of the tournament.
There should still remain a significant cash prize at the end of the tournament in order to encourage teams to compete, however the award of a place in Europe would be dropped. This would ensure that the LV=Cup once again becomes a developmental tournament aimed at bringing through young English players who get the opportunity to compete on a regular basis.
This set-up would free up space in the salary cap in order to ensure clubs can sign additional first team players to bolster the squad for the longer season. I would also propose that teams earn an additional increase in the salary cap for each player involved in England’s EPS (Elite Player Squad) to help deal with the extra stress place on the squad by international call-ups.
Should a player drop out of the EPS clubs would have a season long grace period in which to get themselves back under the salary cap once their additional budget had been reduced. Whilst I’m sure many will argue with this point I feel it is necessary in order to ensure the fair working of the new season. This is because in order to fit all of the games into the season we would need to see more Premiership games played during international windows.
The biggest potential issue at this stage would now be on how the hell to fund all of this. Well the reality is that with more games in each season and more fans with a vested interest, there will come additional money from TV and sponsors. The extra revenue generated by the increased number of games would be invested straight into the clubs to allow them to invest in additional playing staff.
Whilst the reduction in LV=Cup games would help to reduce the stress on squads, the fact that most of the tournaments games are played during international windows mean it cannot be a like for like replacement. It would therefore be a requirement to play an additional two games during international windows so it is therefore fair to ensure that clubs who lose a number of players to internationals are adequately covered.
Obviously talk of extending the league and increasing the salary cap is great in principle, the other underlying issue is that teams coming up do not have the necessary security in their position at the top table to invest heavily to ensure survival. It may therefore be necessary to look at ring-fencing the Premiership for say a period of two years in order to give them enough security to invest in top quality players on two year contracts.
For me there are more than enough quality teams currently residing in the Championship to ensure that an extended Premiership would be more than viable. The additional promotion place in the Championship would also give more teams the opportunity to taste Premiership action whilst a two year ring fence initially on the Premiership would give clubs the confidence to invest in playing staff. They would then be supported by parachute payments allowing them to retain their top talent for another challenge on the Premiership once the ring fencing had been removed.
Would you support an expanded Premiership?