Decision over Premiership relegation needs to be made quickly

This article is more than 4 months old
Robert Kitson

Lack of clarity about what will happen at the end of the season is unfair to clubs, players and spectators

Matt Rogerson takes the ball forward against Leicester as London Irish began life at their new home in Brentford.
Matt Rogerson takes the ball forward against Leicester as London Irish began life at their new home in Brentford. Photograph: Javier García/BPI/Shutterstock
Matt Rogerson takes the ball forward against Leicester as London Irish began life at their new home in Brentford. Photograph: Javier García/BPI/Shutterstock

Last modified on Tue 1 Dec 2020 03.02 EST

Anyone who watched the Premiership game between London Irish and Leicester on Sunday would have been struck by a few things. The first was the venue: how good it is to see the Exiles in their brand new home in Brentford, playing with a renewed sense of purpose. Even their snazzy green kit felt like progress, in contrast to Leicester’s away strip, which has prompted fans to ask if it was designed by a child with a set of crayons.

Equally uneasy on the eye was Leicester’s modus operandi. Even in the closing moments, with possession in their own 22 and the score 22-9, there was absolutely no thought of ball-in-hand ambition. Up went yet another box kick, with the calculation clearly being that a fumble by Irish was more likely to sneak a bonus point than attempting an ambitious length-of-the-field foray.

This is not another piece about mindless kicking, however. It is about the integrity of the league, the duty of care owed to players and the medium-term outlook for all concerned. Because, with two rounds of the domestic campaign played, no one can be entirely sure whether there will be relegation from the Premiership in June. Are Leicester, and others, right to be playing with white-knuckled fear of the drop or will they be spared all that worry and stress?

Here is the very latest on the subject from the Rugby Football Union. “There has been no decision or vote tabled to change the Premiership and Championship structure,” said a Twickenham spokesperson. Over at Premiership Rugby they are saying precisely the same thing, insisting that the bottom side will be relegated as usual. All of which flatly contradicts the rugby grapevine, which claims a ringfenced top tier is pretty much a done deal.

Clearly these are uncertain times and the landscape may look very different in a few months’ time. The savage impact of Covid-19 on the game must not be underestimated, while it is still not absolutely clear what the structure of the Championship season – pencilled in to kick off in mid-January – will be. Yet regardless of the final call – whether it be promoting Saracens and Ealing to a 14-team Premiership or retaining the status quo – one thing is surely compulsory: the decision has to be made soon.

In a perfect world it should have happened before the season commenced. If Leicester knew they had a little more breathing space, would they have rushed out and recruited an all-South African back row, a decision that hardly seems in the wider interests of English rugby? Would they be playing such constipated rugby? A bit of clarity would certainly be welcomed by Bath, now bottom of the table after successive defeats by Newcastle and Exeter.

But this is not just about playing styles, recruitment or media interest. What about the players who, in a season with no scheduling respite, need to be kept in the loop more than ever? They are being told to play as if their lives depend on it and to soldier on through the inevitable knocks to help keep their club afloat. If someone turns around in late April and says: “Actually, lads, there’s no relegation this year,” they will have every reason to aggrieved.

Just as important, perhaps, what about the fans? This weekend is due to see a couple of thousand supporters finally readmitted to stadiums; all of them deserve to know the precise context – and potential implications – of the fixture they are watching. It is simply not good enough to string them along or to manufacture a relegation subplot when there is still half a chance there will not be one.

Clubs in the Championship – and what a desperately tough time they have endured – also need some certainty. Once the autumn Tests are over and people’s attention reverts back from the international game, top of the priority list should be the plight of those trapped in limbo since March. Saracens and Ealing may have the financial means to ride out the storm but thousands of good players, young and old, have been without a competitive game for more than eight months.

With the cancellation of the Premiership Shield – the A league that was – the gap between those playing professionally and everyone else is widening by the week. Even if you are a fringe player on the books of a Premiership club, where is your next league game coming from unless you agree to drop down a division or two and play with rusty amateurs?

All of this, inevitably, feeds into the wider ringfencing debate. It may be concluded that the Premiership has already, in effect, ringfenced itself – unless there are enough people who argue that retaining the gangway between the haves and have-nots is essential to keep the game honest. Either way, the matter needs addressing imminently, for everybody’s sake.

Georgian delight

If you haven’t heard it already, the best part of the Autumn Nations Cup was the ecstatic Georgian commentary as their centre Giorgi Kveseladze scored his fine solo try against Ireland in Dublin. It was a reminder of how much rugby means in Georgia and how delighted they are to be playing against the leading European nations on a weekly basis. They will be even more excited when they can finally host them in Tbilisi, with thousands of partisan fans roaring them on. Hopefully Ireland – and England – will play a Test there sooner rather than later.

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One to watch

An Autumn Nations Cup showdown between England and France should have been a grand finale for the organisers but the prospect of the visitors fielding a virtual C team has not entirely devalued the occasion. France have a wonderfully talented generation of young players: here is a perfect chance for one or two to show Fabien Galthié they deserve a place in his 2023 World Cup squad. Maybe it will also be the day England remember they have some highly talented attacking backs and pass them the ball more frequently.

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