Last year, interim RFU chief Nigel Melville ruled out ringfencing the Premiership, labelling the idea “wishful thinking.” However, times, and personnel are changing, and following the purchase of 27% of Premiership shares (after member clubs rejected a bid for 51%) by CVC Capital Partners, the controversial issue has been placed firmly back into the centre of debate. Premiership head Ian Ritchie, for instance, has declared an investigation into the potential benefits of scrapping promotion and relegation “right and proper.”
Ringfencing is a hugely divisive issue. Proponents point to the greater stability, both financial and sporting, enjoyed by teams in the Guinness Pro14. However, proposals have been met with firm resistance by many on either side of the divide between Championship and Premiership. In fact, there have been suggestions from some quarters that ringfencing may in fact directly contravene the 1998 Competition Act, constituting an abuse of market dominance.
Former Cornwall Pirates owner, Dicky Evans, believes removing access to the top level will diminish ambition throughout the English League structure, contending, “everybody should aspire to be at the top level, it’s good for competition.” Likewise, former Saracens flanker Will Fraser, who was blooded as a young player in the Championship, has stated, “if we want to keep generating young English talent, we need to have the Championship as a league as a method and progression pathway.”
Likewise, his ex-teammate, Alex Goode, has spoken on the potential detriment to end of season games in the Premiership, which could become increasingly meaningless if relegation is to be scrapped. The final day of the 2005 season, when five teams could go down, only for a dramatic Mark Cueto score to relegate Harlequins, is a prime example of drama and intensity added by relegation. From the promotion side of things, the rapidly rising arc of Exeter Chiefs, from promotion from National 1 in 1997, to their arrival in the Premiership in 2010, and incredible final day victory in 2017, is evidence of the potential for newly promoted sides to establish themselves as elite contenders.
Currently however, Championship clubs receive a measly 10% of funds given by the RFU to topflight clubs. Jersey Chairman Phil Dempsey has described this state of affairs as “unsustainable”. It also means the likelihood of another Exeter emerging in the near future is rapidly decreasing.
A potential compromise has been touted by figures such as Sir Ian McGeechan, who, when chairman of Yorkshire Carnegie, declared he was not averse to ringfencing proposals, so long as they did not permanently exclude those with the potential capabilities of competing at Premiership level. What form this could take is, as of yet, unclear. One alternative is that of a rolling, three-year ringfence, in which the situation is reassessed every three years and a playoff occurs to gain entry.
Perhaps the fairest possible solution is that of a top versus bottom playoff at the end of every season. Not only would this be a hugely dramatic spectacle, but it would mean the Premiership would retain competitiveness throughout the season and offer Championship clubs a continued route to the top, driving ambition. It would also, in theory, mean that the team most capable of competing in the Premiership would earn a place in the league the following year. Either way, this is an issue that looks set to divide opinion for years to come.
Written by Joe Ronan