English top-flight rugby has rarely been more competitive than it has this season yet talk of ring-fencing the competition continues to loom large.
Premiership Rugby is set to provide an update to its board on Tuesday regarding the proposal to ring-fence the league, despite the fiercest relegation battle for many years currently raging on.
The debate over scrapping relegation and promotion has refused to go away this season and is expected to be high on the agenda at the meeting.
A number of England's leading clubs are reportedly interested in creating a 13-team league that would see the existing 12 Premiership sides joined by London Irish, who currently lead the RFU Championship and are set for promotion.
Those 13 teams already make up the Premiership Rugby shareholders and any decision to scrap relegation and promotion would have to be unanimously agreed.
But despite appetite in some quarters, it is a move that risks jeopardising the current levels of excitement that the league is providing.
At present there are just 13 points – three wins and a bonus point – separating the bottom six sides, while there are only eight points between the bottom four.
It is perilous for those involved and there is reason to be fearful for some of English rugby's biggest sides, with Leicester Tigers, one of an elite clutch of clubs never to have been relegated from the top tier, among those facing danger.
Scrapping relegation would guarantee Leicester and the other 12 teams security and provide certain of revenue in the medium term, which could in turn result in greater investment. But it would also remove the excitement that the lower half of the league provides.
The subsequent loss of those competitive games with meaning could also hinder fans' enjoyment and, should the overall product suffer, potentially detract from commercial revenue and broadcast deals.
Bristol Bears and Worcester Warriors have both suffered relegation in recent years and are embroiled in a scrap to escape it this season (Source: Getty)
But while the financial consequences of both systems are open to debate, the limits it will impose on the rest of the Championship's teams is not.
The likes of Yorkshire Carnegie and Bedford Blues will have their potential for growth stunted, which could also have a negative knock-on effect for the grassroots game.
While it is true that relegation battles have not been as intensely fought in recent seasons, with the likes of London Irish, London Welsh, Bristol and Worcester all having been significantly cut adrift, this season has reignited the appeal of the current system, while also giving those in the division below something to aspire to.
It is the kind of competitive and close action that CVC will have hoped for when the private equity company acquired a 27 per cent stake in Premiership Rugby earlier this year, although CVC will likely support the more American strategy of ring-fencing the competition – common to the NFL, NBA and other leading US sports – and their increasing influence could be a factor.
“It is the right time to fundamentally rethink the system in this country as we try to secure financial sustainability for the professional game in England at all levels,” a Premiership Rugby spokesperson said last month. “We are in a dialogue with the RFU, and as we have already announced, we will be coming back to the Premiership Rugby board meeting with an update.”
Convincing the Rugby Football Union, who must agree to the proposal along with the 13 Premiership stake-holding clubs, could be the biggest stumbling block yet for Read More – Source