One of the unforeseen pleasures of being expelled from the Premiership is discovering the website "Rolling Maul" set up by Richard Lowther that provides a forum for discussion amongst fans at all levels below the top tier. There are dedicated forums for the Championship, National Division One, Two North and South and below, where supporters and chief executives of the RFU and all kinds between engage in informed and sometimes witty debate. Because posters pitch in from all clubs it's at times a bit like arguing blindfold in a very darkened room, but slowly identities emerge. Of course the controversial subject of the Championship format is never far away, along with with dual registration, financial failures and clubs popping up again out of administration.
But musing on the subject a few novel thoughts occurred to me which surprisingly seem to argue for something of a need for not rushing into ever more changing of the set up.
The argument for the play offs in the Premiership is completely different from that in the Championship. In the Premiership, clubs who provide players who are part of the English Elite Squad, are disadvantaged during International windows, whilst the GP continues, and so they have the chance to "peak" after the Six nations and then go on to the play off semi-finals and then win the Grand Final.
It's primary justification is not just to "make money", per se, as certain sceptics might suggest, but to give the clubs and the RFU the grounds for a compromise so that the National team are able to compete on a more equitable playing field than the one that has, so far, favoured the Celtic nations.
The cost to the Celtic regionalised teams is a devalued Magners league, which as a consequence, fails to gain the SKY revenue that the Guinness Premiership generates. The new binding contract between the RFU and PRL, which limits the clubs to 22 games in a 12 team league this year, enabled the England squad to have a complete break between a gruelling draw at Murrayfield and a showdown at the Stade de France.
Thank heaven, England played some great rugby that night in Paris and despite losing 12-10, the French were frankly poor. But they didn't have the benefit of a break. Their top 14 schedule had them playing a club game in between, and it showed. The attempt of Stade Paris to get James Haskell to play and break an unwritten agreement displayed how tortuous and detailed the agreement had to be in the first place to stick.
None the less, a degree of "credibilty" was restored to England RFC, and as a result to English rugby, at all levels.
I certainly wouldn't say that the national team comes above all others. Far from it, but it at least deserves an equal footing along with minis, Schools, AASE league, colts, junior, intermediate, county and senior levels, including the "Championship".
Some rugby fans who follow their Premiership teams may not be aware of this strange beast lurking hidden, deep within the rugby jungle. If they were to rely upon the national press, only the Daily Telegraph gives anything other than the barest of bones in the form of the scores. Television even less so.
But in fact this season has seen an incredible boiling of rage and indignation within the twelve towns where Championship rugby is played and both the promotion and relegation battles are poised on a the sharpest of knife edges after this Easter weekend's results.
The "play offs" here are based on a different logic from those in the Premiership. It starts on the premise that RFU funding has to be concentrated on only those 12 teams who are deemed as being viable contenders for eventual promotion to the Premiership. In making those clubs dependent on a centrally controlled "handout" it weakens the 12 clubs independence.
It imposes a farcical 22 game "pre season" qualifying period" that won't wash with the paying public next season. The RFU closely monitor gate receipts, attendance levels, number of tries scored, difference in points, yellow cards, red cards, you name it, they monitor it and they report their findings in a well written review after each round on the RFU website that you can read for yourself, if you care to search for it.
But at the end of the day there is "the bottom line". Revenue, minus expenditure, equals profit or loss. I'm not sure how many of the 12 championship clubs include the six play off games for promotion or the four play off games for relegation in their standard season ticket price, but I assume they do. Bristol, for sure, include them. So the lower attendance figures must be leaving the architects of the structure scratching their heads. As a supporter I am both engrossed and fascinated and the emergence snarling from the undergrowth of a fully fanged Birmingham RFC has caught us all by surprise, none more so than their neighbours and rivals Moseley RFC.
Less of a surprise is the stumbling form of the favourites, Exeter and Bristol, the only two teams who meet the entry criteria set by PRL for promotion. With three games to go they are dead equal on points with Cornish Pirates and a boisterous Bedford, with Bristol having to play two of their games away from home, but crucially their game with Bedford at home. Anything can happen. Isn't that what you want in a competition?
Moreover, the Guinness Premiership is coming up with some incredible games. Gloucester's win against Saracens was perhaps the finest game of rugby I have seen in my life. And Wasps defeat of a rampant London Irish not far behind. At all levels the game is thriving. On the local front the derby game between Dings Crusaders and Clifton in National Division two South was fit for any broadcast by David Attenborough of the BBC Natural History Unit entitled "Life of the Hippotomus". In hushed tones he could have recorded 30 beefy blokes mud wrestling in cold water alternatively politely applauded by the toffs on one side when their team took the lead, and loudly jeered by the hoi polio on the other when their team went ahead. In the end a late penalty miss by the generally dead eye Clifton fly half was trumped by an assured penalty conversion by the Ding's replacement fly half Lukjanevic, Dings winning 17-15.
At the final whistle there was a mass outbreak of good humoured baiting by the Dings crowd with their singing, "One team in Bristol, there's only one team in Bristol.....One team in Bristol, oh there's only one team in Bristol", I think you know the tune to something like "Juan tamapara" or such like. The delated Clifton camp were left to reflect upon the fact that their successful season "does not hinge solely on winning one game". Dings might beg to differ.
But to return to the Future, the recent announcement by Martin Thomas of the RFU to consider expanding the Guinness Premiership to 14 when the TV contacts come up for renewal in 20011 and then think about ring fencing, perhaps, threatens the present hard won sense of equilibrium beginning to be achieved between the Professional clubs and the National team.
It is Sky and other rival broadcasters. who pay the big bucks that fund the game, they who are the paymasters and it is they who will dictate it's form at the professional level. With Ofcom suddenly throwing a big oily spanner into the "smoothly" running works, Chief Executives are once again faced with the one thing they don't like, apart from a poor product, and that is "uncertainty".
The Guinness Premiership, as it stands, is providing the goods. Even the Six nations with a possibly renaissacent England is meeting audience targets. But the credibility of the Guinness Premiership is based on the real threat of relegation. And that threat is dependent upon a credible Championship.
Incredible? Certainly. Credible? Not so sure. If the economics don't add up and changes have to be made I've suggested a championship of six teams North and South playing each other home and away twice before the top three of each go into a promotion group of six and the bottom three into a relegation play off group of six.
Of course it's a lot easier to throw one's hands in the air and shout "Bonkers". Returning to the old 16 team league? May not go down well with the TV executives.
One thing for sure. Plenty of thought is going into it. And by the end of next week the fate of Bristol, Cornish Pirates, Bedford in group One, and Nottingham RFC, London Welsh, Doncaster and Exeter in Group 2 will becoming clearer.
Not that you would know if you only used the traditional professional media of the Press and the airwaves. But the Directors of Rugby of the clubs in the relegation battle in the Premiership will be praying for an upset as much as those of Bristol and Exeter will be nervously counting their worry beads.
Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 02/11/2012 09:24 by WilliamBlessing.