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Is now the time for the Aviva Premiership to be ‘ring-fenced’ – Part I?

Earlier this week a new deal worth £225 million between the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and Premiership Rugby was announced, but where does that leave Championship rugby with play-off rugby only guaranteed until the end of this season?

The thrilling two-legged RFU Championship final from last season saw Bristol seal their return to the Aviva Premiership following a seven-year absence scraping past Doncaster Knights 60-47 on aggregate over the two legs.

The Knights outscored Bristol 5 tries to 2 winning the second leg 34-32 but could not overcome the damage that was done in the first leg.

Bristol had finished as league leaders in the Championship’s regular season in 2010, 2012 and 2014, losing in the play-offs each time. Premiership Rugby and the RFU possibly breathed a collective sigh of relief that the West Country powerhouse were the team to return to top flight action and not the South Yorkshire minnows.

Had the Knights been promoted, would they have been doomed to fail? Due to the way English rugby is structured, one could speculate that they would have followed the plight of the London Welsh 2014-15 squad who only managed to collect a solitary bonus point in a disastrous campaign, rather than the current Exeter Chiefs side that reached the Premiership final following promotion to the Premiership six seasons earlier. The parallels between the hypothetical Knights promotion and London Welsh’s are as follows:

  • Firstly, the Knights home ground Castle Park in Armthorpe would not have met Premiership criteria which would have seen them lease the Keepmoat stadium from their footballing neighbours Doncaster Rovers. With an attendance for the first-leg of the championship playoff final of under 5,000 there would have needed to be a serious bolster in the fan base to raise ticket revenues to overcome the cost of leasing the Keepmoat.
  • Secondly, the Premiership has a three-tier share system which rewards the clubs who have spent the most seasons in the Premiership. The Premiership has a shareholding system where teams receive ‘B’ shares on their promotion to the league, followed by five ‘A shares’ for every year they remain in the league up to a maximum of 40 ‘A’ shares after six seasons in the top flight. For each season a club falls outside of the Premiership they lose five ‘A’ shares.

All 12 Premiership clubs get ‘B’ shares automatically but clubs must be in the league for two seasons before they earn the right to purchase ‘P’ shares, which are the most lucrative, from the club who have been relegated to the Championship. Exeter are the last side to have been promoted from the Championship who purchased P shares, for £5 million from Yorkshire Carnegie.

Had the Knights achieved promotion they would have received substantially less central funding than some of the long-standing Premiership outfits. No fan of the game wants to see a club go through what London Welsh did two seasons ago.

The Aviva Premiership is a closed shop in practice, as the clubs holding ‘A’ shares will have a greater advantage then an aspiring club such as Jersey or Ealing with no such shares. Is it time for Premiership rugby to simply ‘ring-fence’ the competition as no club beyond newly relegated London Irish would have the financial backing to overcome the head start that the current Premiership roster of sides has?

In the second instalment of this two-part blog series I will explore why a ring-fenced Premiership might not be such a bad idea in light of the Championship’s “full-time” identity crisis.

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Blacks Solicitors LLP