Premier­ship ring-fence bid faces ‘grass-roots re­bel­lion’

A ‘less is more’ ap­proach to the num­ber of matches in a club sea­son could help the game at all lev­els

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - By Gavin Mairs RUGBY NEWS COR­RE­SPON­DENT

Premier­ship clubs have been warned they face the po­ten­tial of a “grass-roots re­bel­lion” if they press ahead with plans to do away with pro­mo­tion and rel­e­ga­tion this sea­son.

The Sun­day Tele­graph un­der­stands that Nigel Melville, the Rugby Foot­ball Union’s act­ing chief ex­ec­u­tive, has writ­ten to the gov­ern­ing body’s coun­cil mem­bers to re­as­sure them that they will have the fi­nal say in any pro­pos­als to ring-fence the top flight.

The Premier­ship club own­ers, buoyed by the new £210mil­lion deal with pri­vate eq­uity firm CVC, are to de­bate plans to scrap rel­e­ga­tion and ex­pand the league to 13 clubs next sea­son at a board meet­ing on Feb 5.

How­ever, sources close to the RFU coun­cil suggested there is grow­ing sup­port to call a spe­cial gen­eral meet- ing of grass-roots mem­bers to re­ject the plans.

“The Premier­ship clubs seem to think they can do what they want, but it is ridicu­lous to think they can end pro­mo­tion and rel­e­ga­tion mid­way through a sea­son with­out any dis­cus­sions with the game,” said a se­nior source. “This is a de­ci­sion for all mem­bers of the RFU, not just 13 or 14 clubs.

“There is a feel­ing they are try­ing to drive through their plans be­cause of the CVC deal, but if they try to, they will face a grass-roots re­bel­lion.”

An RFU spokes­woman con­firmed last night that Melville had writ­ten to the 54 mem­bers of the gov­ern­ing body’s coun­cil. “Any ring-fenc­ing pro­posal would ul­ti­mately need to be ap­proved by the RFU coun­cil,” she said.

Mark McCaf­ferty, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Premier­ship Rugby, is also a mem­ber of the coun­cil, and it is un­der­stood he would vote with the man­date given to him by the Premier­ship board.

Af­ter Glouces­ter’s bat­ter­ing by Mun­ster at King­sholm on Fri­day night, Ex­eter find them­selves back in the last-chance sa­loon to­day. The Chiefs must win at home to Cas­tres if they are to stand any chance of qual­i­fy­ing for the knock­out stages of the Cham­pi­ons Cup. Even then, they would need to win again at Mun­ster next week­end to go through.

It’s a tall or­der, al­though the fact Ex­eter are even in con­tention is pretty re­mark­able when you con­sider their form in Eu­rope this term.

With one win and a draw from their four games so far, it is fair to say Rob Bax­ter’s team have not looked all that con­vinc­ing. Sadly, that seems to be some­thing we are say­ing far too of­ten where Ex­eter and Eu­rope are con­cerned, which is a shame when you con­sider what a su­perb job Bax­ter has done down there.

The Chiefs are still an ex­cep­tional team. Wit­ness their de­mo­li­tion job on Sara­cens a cou­ple of weeks ago. Their weak­ness is that while their game is con­sis­tent, it is also read­able, and the best teams will chal­lenge their pro­cesses. When it comes to Eu­rope, they seem to lack a Plan B for when their Plan A (multi-phase play rugby in their op­po­nents’ 22) doesn’t come off.

The stats don’t lie. Ex­eter have now made Eu­rope’s top-tier com­pe­ti­tion five times since be­ing pro­moted into the Premier­ship in 2010 but have only once made it out of their pool and have never won a knock­out match. As one of the top two clubs in Eng­land, that sug­gests that English rugby needs a shake-up. It needs to in­tro­duce changes which, in my opin­ion, would ben­e­fit the game at all lev­els.

These are hugely im­por­tant times for the game in this coun­try. The re­cent in­jec­tion of cash from CVC Cap­i­tal Part­ners has pro­vided a once-in-a-gen­er­a­tion op­por­tu­nity to re­think and re­shape the game.

The key is to use this op­por­tu­nity wisely to ben­e­fit ev­ery level of the game from club rugby right through to in­ter­na­tional rugby.

So how to do it? You don’t need to look far. It has be­come in­creas­ingly ap­par­ent over the past 18 months that the Ir­ish sys­tem is work­ing bet­ter than the English one off a smaller bud­get and with a smaller play­ing pool. Their play­ers are bet­ter rested and con­se­quently bet­ter able to per­form at the key mo­ments of the sea­son.

It is a no-brainer, there­fore, that any new for­mat would bring a re­duc­tion in the num­ber of games played. That, fun­da­men­tally, is the big­gest prob­lem in Eng­land – the num­ber of games.

Yes, Premier­ship Rugby is a busi­ness, and yes, clubs want as many bums on seats as pos­si­ble as of­ten as pos­si­ble. But in the same breath, there has to be a duty of care to the play­ers. The re­cent Pro­fes­sional Rugby In­jury Surveil­lance Project re­port makes it abun­dantly clear that the cur­rent path­way we are on is un­sus­tain­able.

The prob­lem, his­tor­i­cally any­way, is that the ma­jor stake­hold­ers in this coun­try – Premier­ship Rugby Lim­ited, the Rugby Foot­ball Union, the Cham­pi­onship etc – have not al­ways been on the same page. Which makes it hard to agree on any­thing.

In Ire­land, the Ir­ish Rugby Foot­ball Union con­trols not only the prov­inces but the in­ter­na­tional game. That means they can move play­ers such as Joey Car­bery from Le­in­ster to Mun­ster if he’s not get­ting as much game time as they would like. We saw the ben­e­fits of that on Fri­day night. Car­bery was sen­sa­tional.

What needs to be stressed is that if we get it right for the core as­sets – the play­ers – then the game ben­e­fits at ev­ery level, right through to in­ter­na­tional.

Play­ing fewer games does not need to mean a less ex­cit­ing com­pe­ti­tion struc­ture. On the con­trary, it would hope­fully mean the top play­ers play­ing more rather than less of­ten and in all the key games. As Steve Brown, the re­cently de­parted RFU chief ex­ec­u­tive, said: “Less can mean more.”

Why not adopt a Pro14 con­fer­ences­tyle for­mat? Say, for in­stance, you have 14 fully pro­fes­sional clubs. You could have two con­fer­ences of seven teams. Each club plays the other six home and away. That is 12 games. You then have play-offs at the busi­ness end of the sea­son. The play-off sys­tem can be ma­nip­u­lated to cre­ate the de­sired num­ber of games.

As for ring-fenc­ing, it’s a thorny de­bate, but I’m not averse to it if it would help to en­cour­age bet­ter rugby and greater sta­bil­ity – both from a busi­ness and a player per­spec­tive.

It need not be as con­tro­ver­sial as all that. Some Cham­pi­onship clubs want the op­por­tu­nity to come up, oth­ers don’t. The im­por­tant thing is that the RFU does not cut adrift clubs who have the ca­pa­bil­ity – and the de­sire – to do so. It must also be mind­ful of its re­spon­si­bil­ity to grow the game in all re­gions, which means hav­ing top-level teams in all re­gions if pos­si­ble.

Ring-fenc­ing for a spec­i­fied pe­riod – four years, say – would be both rea­son­able and log­i­cal; al­low­ing those clubs as­pir­ing to go up time to get their houses in or­der, and giv­ing Premier­ship clubs the safety net to grow their busi­nesses and man­age their play­ers’ work­load in a more en­light­ened way.

The play­ers must be at the heart of this. They need to be play­ing fewer but higher qual­ity games.

You should not have to have vast squads. In fact, ideally you want smaller squads so the key play­ers all get to play in the key games.

Of course, there needs to be cover dur­ing the in­ter­na­tional win­dows, but those play­ers step­ping in should be the out­stand­ing 20 to 23-year-olds be­ing pro­duced by a jointly funded and jointly run Acad­emy and Player De­vel­op­ment Path­way sys­tem.

Look at Ire­land. Their cur­rent suc­cess is based on the blood­ing of their young tal­ent – James Ryan, Jor­dan Lar­mour, Dan Leavy, Ja­cob Stock­dale et al – over two sea­sons, which leads not just to provin­cial but to in­ter­na­tional stan­dards.

English rugby could do so much bet­ter, but the stake­hold­ers need to work to­gether for the greater good. It must have the col­lec­tive con­fi­dence to cre­ate a suc­cess­ful busi­ness on and off the field based on a more re­al­is­tic num­ber of games.

In the end, suc­cess­fully sell­ing the game to a global au­di­ence will be based on qual­ity rather than quan­tity.

It is a no­brainer that any new for­mat would bring a re­duc­tion in games played

No progress: Ex­eter’s Joe Sim­monds is brought down in a tackle by Flo­rien Vialelle dur­ing Cas­tres’ Cham­pi­ons Cup win at the Pierre Fabre Sta­dium in Oc­to­ber

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