Television sports producers are so gifted when it comes to creating illusions, it would be no surprise to discover half of them are members of the Magic Circle. Anyone watching Match of the Day on a Saturday night could be forgiven for thinking goals scored by the visiting team are politely applauded by the home supporters, rather than greeted with volleys of abuse.
Yet when London Welsh returned to the top flight of English club rugby a little under a fortnight ago with a match against Exeter at the Kassam Stadium in Oxford, there was no disguising the truth: that a plate of undercooked halibut would have generated more excitement.
That the contest was hopelessly one-sided – the visitors won 52-0 – was the least of its problems. Infinitely worse was the absence of anything resembling a crowd.
“It made the Premiership look terrible,” said one leading chief executive this week. “It might have been a game of non-league football.”
Meanwhile, Bristol and Worcester were engaged in a second-tier Championship fixture at Ashton Gate that attracted the best part of 9,000 spectators – more than three times the number who ventured through the turnstiles at the Kassam, where three sides of the stadium were closed off through lack of interest.
This was not lost on the movers and shakers at the top end of the domestic game, who will, over the next year or so, do everything in their power to abolish the end-of-season knockout mechanism that allowed London Welsh to beat Bristol to promotion last May – a system increasingly regarded as preposterous.
Bristol won the so-called “regular season” by eight points, but lost to the Exiles over two legs in the play-off final. Since then, a number of leading figures in the sport, including the England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, have argued that there is no logical place for a play-off system at Championship level and that the strongest side over a 22-match league campaign should be rewarded with automatic promotion rather than be made a hostage to fortune.
This view is gaining traction by the day, particularly among those who believe that for a whole raft of reasons the West Countrymen would have brought far more to the Premiership than their conquerors, and that the “wrong” team went up.
“First things first,” says Andy Robinson, one of Lancaster’s red-rose predecessors, who has been in charge at Bristol for the last 18 months. “The reason we’re not in the Premiership right now is us. We played 40 minutes of pretty poor rugby at the worst possible moment last season and as a result we missed out on the big prize. That was our fault and nobody else’s. There are no hard feelings about it and we respect the current rules and regulations covering promotion and relegation.
“I would also make a second point. No matter what system we find ourselves playing under, we’re on our way back to the Premiership. Whether I’m here or not – whether it takes a year, or two years, or three – I have absolutely no doubt we’ll make it.
“We have the right investment, the right stadium, the team-building capacity, the player pathway from academy to senior side. We’re a Premiership-standard club.
“But if you leave all that aside and simply ask me as a rugby man what would be best for the club game in this country, I’d unhesitatingly say that the team finishing top of the league should go up as of right. It’s a no-brainer.”
This season’s Championship is likely to be lopsided in the extreme. Bristol have already played, and won, two of their three or four hardest games of the campaign – without performing particularly well, according to Robinson – and to all intents and purposes the tournament will not begin in earnest until the play-off stage begins in May.
Only then will the West Countrymen find themselves fighting for their collective future, almost certainly against Worcester, who are similarly intent on a return to the top echelon after the drawn-out misery of last term’s relegation trauma.
Over the water in France, second-tier rugby is infinitely more competitive and therefore much healthier.
No fewer than three former Heineken Cup finalists – Biarritz, Colomiers and Perpignan – are in the division, along with Agen, Béziers, Narbonne, Pau and Bourgoin, some of the most celebrated clubs in the country. League matches are bitterly fought week on week, largely because the team finishing top is guaranteed a place in the big time. Yet the play-off element remains, with sides finishing second to fifth scrapping it out for a second promotion spot.
Robinson believes something similar would send some much-needed voltage through the English league structure. In fact, he would prefer to see something far more radical.
“My idea would be for a play-off involving the second, third and fourth-placed Championship teams and the side finishing 11th in the Premiership,” he says. “That would make life interesting in both tournaments and reduce the number of dead matches.”
The chances of the Premiership fraternity agreeing to extend the threat of relegation are close to zero. According to people well placed to assess the mood of the various owner-investors and their chief executives, there is no discernible appetite for such a move. “Since when did turkeys vote for Christmas?” asked one director of rugby close to the debate. “I don’t see it happening.”
All the same, the idea has its merits. For one thing, the commercial appeal of the Championship would be enhanced by the introduction of a format along the lines suggested by Robinson. For another, interest in events at the “dogfight” end of the Premiership table would be maintained, even if one outclassed team found themselves hopelessly adrift by Christmas.
The broadcasters would certainly support it: rugby with something at stake equals rugby with an audience.
If it is unlikely to happen this side of Armageddon – or at least, this side of 2020 – the idea of doing away with promotion and relegation altogether seems even more far-fetched, much to the relief of those who object on principle to any walling-off of the Premiership.
“There is still a substantial majority of leading clubs in favour of one up, one down,” said a senior figure in the club game this week.
“I think most people understand that if we were to seal ourselves off from the Championship, we would have to go to a 14-team Premiership, with all the financial implications of having more mouths to feed. And even then, there would be ambitious teams in that division who would feel badly mistreated.
“I don’t expect it to come under serious consideration. What we need to do is help the Championship strengthen itself, both commercially and competitively.”
But the promotion play-offs are doomed. The format may limp on for the next couple of seasons, but it is on its last legs. Bristol, who have won the league three times in the last five years and messed up at the knockout stage each time, will be the first to dance on its grave.Reuse content