Clubs taken down a peg after move for expansion

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The Independent Online

The politics of English rugby tends to run about as smoothly as Gordon Brown's meetings with "ordinary voters", so it was no surprise yesterday to see the Rugby Football Union demolish the Premiership fraternity's tentative moves towards an expansion of the top league and a temporary suspension of relegation with a single blow of its great clunking fist.

"We spent almost a year in the most complex negotiations before putting the current agreement in place – an agreement which runs until 2016," said Francis Baron, the governing body's chief executive. "We don't believe expansion or an end to promotion and relegation would have any beneficial effect."

For his part, the RFU chairman, Martyn Thomas, mocked the notion that the addition of two clubs to the current 12-team league would aid Premiership sustainability in an acutely difficult financial climate. "If you have 12 shops and no one's making much money, you don't rush out and open another two shops," he said. "You might close two. What you don't do is increase your exposure. It's quality we need in the Premiership, not quantity."

This joint assault on the expansion idea may heighten the tensions between the union and its elite clubs, which, despite Baron's insistence that relations had "never been better", are rarely anything other than strained.

Although the Premiership teams deny that an end to relegation has reappeared on their agenda, the truth of the matter is that it never went away. Some club chairmen and chief executives identified relegation as a serious barrier to business development more than a decade ago and have not changed their minds. Now, with Worcester contemplating a costly descent into the second-tier Championship, the issue is live once again.

Baron said Worcester's relegation would not be confirmed until the union's management board meeting on 26 May, by which time the champions of the Championship will be known and their claims to Premiership admission checked against a long list of criteria. The favourites for the title, Bristol and Exeter, are considered likely to meet requirements.

By way of rubbing it in, Baron proclaimed himself "a real sceptic" about any hike in the Premiership's annual salary cap of £4m. The wealthier clubs – Leicester, Northampton, Saracens and Bath – are making noises about raising the ceiling in an effort to level the Heineken Cup playing field, currently tilted towards the free-spending French. "Such a move would result either in a big inflation in players' wages or in a new flood of foreign signings," Baron remarked.

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