Earlier this year, I wrote a series of pieces on two of England’s biggest fallen giants, Orrell and West Hartlepool, charting their demise from members of the elite at the beginning of the professional era to their current place at near the base of the league structure. Their fall was fast, tragic and dramatic.
Both had full stadiums, internationals turning out for them and an enthusiastic fan base. They helped, momentarily, to shift England’s power balance northwards slightly. Both have sadly since fallen away, crippled by financial issues.
This season much has been made of Leicester and Wasps’ poor start to the season, headlines have emphasised the fall from grace of these two sides, two of the countries traditional heavyweights. Yet, I believe such a narrative is simply overstated and sensationalist. The reality is, at this stage of professionalism, these clubs are far too wealthy and far too stable to fall far.
Orrell and West were victims of the cowboy era of early professionalism, where clubs rushed into deals with millionaires, gambled on high wages and lacked the stable revenue of BT TV and CVC investment money. Those days are gone. There are essentially 12 Premiership places and 13 Premiership clubs, it is not hard to predict who will come up and who down.
You would be a fool to bet against Newcastle being promoted from the Championship. Regardless of who goes down, give it a couple of years and you can be just as sure they will be back. The game is becoming worryingly ringfenced. Not in a codified manner, that formally stops promotion or relegation, but by simple economics. The imbalance in resources means that, barring catastrophe, Wasps and Leicester will be alright in the end.
This, in my opinion (admittedly not a Wasps or Leicester fan), is not a positive development. Perhaps the best story in English rugby for the last decade has been the rise of Exeter. They are wonderfully run club who have established themselves as a dominant force through their academy, their incredible Director of Rugby and the passion of their fans. It is hard to see such a rise occurring any time soon.
Since Exeter came up, it has been the same clubs yo-yoing from Championship to Premiership: Worcester, Newcastle, London Irish, London Welsh, Bristol. Who else can hope to challenge?
Ultimately, for a sport to function properly, there has to be access to the very top. Otherwise what motivates people? There is a large gulf, numerous leagues and thousands of players between the social teams at the bottom of the league structure, playing for fun, and those in the Premiership, playing for funds, but if the sides in between cannot hope to breach the Premiership financial wall, what is the point?
Rugby is becoming increasingly imbalanced – this must change. Too much money is concentrated at the top. As long as that is the case, regardless of how poor their performances are, Wasps and Leicester are going nowhere.