Premier­ship may be re­duced to 10 teams in bid to avert player strike

The Guardian Australia - - Sport - Exclusive by Ger­ard Meagher

Re­duc­ing the Premier­ship to 10 teams is one of a host of ideas be­ing floated as a po­ten­tial so­lu­tion to the con­tin­u­ing dis­pute over the length of the do­mes­tic sea­son, which has led to the threat of a player strike. It is un­der­stood the pro­posal also in­cludes the pos­si­bil­ity of a 10-team Cham­pi­onship com­ing un­der the ju­ris­dic­tion of Premier­ship Rugby Lim­ited – the se­cond tier is cur­rently run by the Rugby Foot­ball Union – and, in the­ory, a more even dis­tri­bu­tion of funds across the two di­vi­sions.

Cut­ting two teams from the Premier­ship is just one of a num­ber of sug­ges­tions for re­struc­tur­ing the do­mes­tic game – the main fo­cus at Wednesday’s Pro­fes­sional Game

Board meet­ing. The pro­pos­als come amid a row over the Premier­ship’s plans to ex­tend its sea­son to 10 months as part of the new-look global calendar, which will ap­ply from 2020.

A num­ber of high-pro­file Premier­ship play­ers, in­clud­ing Billy Vu­nipola, have ex­pressed con­cerns there are cur­rently too many matches in the calendar, with strike ac­tion raised as a pos­si­bil­ity. A 10-team Premier­ship would, how­ever, re­duce the num­ber of matches played and likely re­duce the num­ber of week­ends where Premier­ship matches clash with in­ter­na­tion­als, which is the clubs’ ma­jor con­cern.

This month Sara­cens have lost four matches in a row for the first time since 2010, with Owen Far­rell, Mako Vu­nipola, Maro Itoje, Jamie Ge­orge, Ge­orge Kruis, Alex Lo­zowski and Nick Isiekwe away with Eng­land for all or some of the au­tumn in­ter­na­tional se­ries.

Ring-fenc­ing the Premier­ship has also been raised as a so­lu­tion, though to do so with 12 teams is dif­fi­cult be­cause some of its shares are held by clubs in the Cham­pi­onship. Pro­pos­als for a 13- or 14team Premier­ship have also been raised but that would only in­crease fears over player wel­fare. Re­duc­ing the Premier­ship to 10 teams would not at first seem an at­trac­tive pro­posal to the share­hold­ers ei­ther but it is thought that a bet­ter dis­tri­bu­tion of fi­nances, a sig­nif­i­cantly more com­pet­i­tive se­cond tier and a two up, two down pro­mo­tion/rel­e­ga­tion sys­tem would help to al­lay fears. It would also suit the Cham­pi­onship clubs who have pro­mo­tion as­pi­ra­tions but fear the Premier­ship is al­ready, in ef­fect, ring-fenced with the rel­e­gated team from the top flight at a huge ad­van­tage to bounce straight back up, as Bris­tol are ex­pected to do this sea­son and as Lon­don Irish did last term.

The PGB meet­ing is ex­pected to be lively, with the salary cap, player wages, the glut of in­juries suf­fered in the early months of the sea­son and the A League all cur­rently con­tentious is­sues. A num­ber of A League matches have been post­poned this sea­son while a host of clubs have had to call on guest play­ers to fill teams. The A League was ex­panded at the start of the sea­son from five to 10 matches for each side and the Premier­ship wants it to in­crease fur­ther to 22 – a re­sponse to Nigel Melville’s “bud­dy­ing plan”, de­signed to part­ner top-flight clubs with sec­on­dand third-tier teams and in­crease the num­ber of dual reg­is­tered play­ers be­tween them.

With in­juries tak­ing hold, how­ever, the Premier­ship clubs have seen their squads stretched even fur­ther be­cause wage de­mands are ris­ing higher than the salary cap – which is due to be frozen for the next two sea­sons – and that, in turn, has led to a shrink­ing of squads, ac­cel­er­at­ing calls to re­model the cur­rent struc­ture in Eng­land.

Tuilagi set for re­turn

Manu Tuilagi is in the frame to make his Le­ices­ter come­back on Satur­day, hav­ing re­cov­ered from the knee in­jury he sus­tained on the open­ing week­end of the sea­son. Tuilagi was ini­tially due back later this month fol­low­ing knee surgery but re­cently re­vealed he had vis­ited a witch doc­tor in Samoa in an at­tempt to cure his long-run­ning in­jury prob­lems. The 26-year-old has not started a Test for Eng­land since June 2014. Ger­ard Meagher

Sara­cens’ Billy Vu­nipola is one of a num­ber of high-pro­file Premier­ship play­ers who have ex­pressed con­cerns there are cur­rently too many matches in the calendar. Pho­to­graph: Mark Ker­ton/PA

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