ORne of English rugby’s hottest title race for years reaches the most tepid of endings today. After weeks of back and forth with their rivals, Ealing began the weekend knowing that victory over Richmond would crown them champions of the Championship, regardless of Doncaster’s result on Friday night. Come Monday morning, however, there will be a sense of limbo irrespective of outcomes on the pitch.
The Rugby Football Union ruled last month that Ealing and Doncaster – the only two clubs to apply to be eligible for promotion – had failed the minimum standards criteria. That criteria is agreed by the Professional Game Board, where the Championship clubs are represented, along with the RFU and Premiership clubs. The main sticking point is stadium capacity which, according to the MSC, must be 10,001 – neither Ealing nor Doncaster come particularly close but as the RFU acknowledged recently, the minimum for Premier League football grounds is 5,000 and both aspiring clubs could meet that.
Premiership Rugby insists that stadium size is only one of a number of issues. PRL has lofty ambitions to revamp the league and move closer to the NFL model and, although there is a willingness to admit a 14th team, this will be only when they are oven-ready. The idea that an aspiring Championship club may be allowed to develop in the Premiership, having earned the right to be there, is anathema to the top-flight clubs whose ambitions sound a lot like a move to a franchise system. Should the promoted club be willing to pay north of £20m for a slice of P shares – currently split between the 13 clubs – it may be a different story but the message seems clear that second tier clubs wanting to chance their arm in the Premiership are not welcome.
Herein lies the rub because as much as the RFU would admit the gap between the Premiership is cavernous and only going to get wider, the union cannot currently countenance allowing the top flight to be a permanently closed shop. First, the council would have to agree and members would be reluctant to sign off on it given the uproar it would cause at grassroots level. Second, political context is required because the fact that the RFU must approve structural changes is the single biggest bargaining chip the union has with the Premiership clubs and the Professional Game Agreement – the deal that governs the release of England players – is up for renewal in 2024.
All of which leaves us in a temporary muddle. A moratorium on relegation was introduced last season and the plan was for the winners of this season’s Championship to go up into a 14-team Premiership. The 2022-23 season would see no relegation or promotion – giving Ealing or Doncaster a season’s grace – before a play-off between the bottom team in the Premiership and the winners of the Championship was introduced the following season. All well and good until the RFU ruled that Ealing and Doncaster had failed the criteria.
Both sides have expressed their intentions to appeal against the decision but the RFU is not due to rule definitively until late April, maybe even early May. That means about a month for the Championship winners unable to plan for next season properly, unable to recruit with any certainty. These clubs have already been operating with one hand tied behind their back and it is to the immense credit of all Championship teams that they remain afloat after the devastating combination of swingeing funding cuts by the RFU and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The precedent for the appeals process is London Welsh, who were ultimately successful after scrambling to arrange a groundshare with Oxford United at the Kassam stadium in 2012. It was an unmitigated disaster, playing home matches 50 miles away from their Richmond home, so it sticks in the craw to hear the RFU ask why Ealing and Doncaster did not arrange groundshares. It was reported this week that Doncaster had belatedly lined up Hull KR’s Craven Park for their appeal but it is understood Ealing have not sought a groundshare. A year ago they had a deal with Saracens to use the StoneX Stadium if they won the Championship play-off but even then they failed the MSC on the basis it was not signed.
This time, Ealing had proposed a year-three plan to bring their current home, Vallis Way, up to 10,000 capacity. They would argue that the MSC encourages sustainability and their proposal can achieve that whereas a groundshare would be loss-making. Furthermore, suspicion abounds and there is a sense that the Premiership clubs were perhaps not ready to cut their RFU funding 14 ways just yet. That the RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney recently hinted that the minimum stadium capacity could come down to 5,000, but next year not this, only adds to it.
All the while the RFU works on plans for a hybrid cup competition between Premiership second teams and Championship clubs for the 2023-24 season. If some clubs do not feel they have the squad depth to enter into it, Premiership clubs could combine with Championship teams to enter. It is understood that if it is successful it could replace the Championship entirely, even if the RFU poured cold water on that idea last week.
“Absolute horse manure is written about what we think about the Championship, it’s a brilliant part of the ecosystem,” said the RFU’s performance director, Conor O’Shea. “We believe this competition will give you the normal league structure, extra development and commercial opportunities and for our young players it’s an essential breeding ground for us. Our young players don’t play enough. The only way to become a better rugby player is on the pitch and we believe this [cup] competition will give us a focus, the Premiership and the Championship are behind us.”
All of which sounds like a solution to the very obvious problem that young English players do not get enough game time at present but does little to address the fact that aspiring Championship clubs are having their promotion ambitions stifled. In the meantime we sit and wait, suspended in limbo.