Worcester's play-off ordeal reignites relegation debate

They won the Championship by a mile but if they lose to Pirates nobody gets promoted. Chris Hewett asks if there is a better way

It is the best part of two decades since the touring New Zealanders met the South-West division at Hellfire Corner in Redruth in one of the most insanely physical encounters of the late amateur era: a game watched by so many supporters – at a conservative estimate, the crowd was twice the official ground capacity – that Sean Fitzpatrick, the All Black captain, had to shove people out of the way before throwing to the line-out. Tonight, in front of a small audience surrounding a ploughed field in Penzance, the ambitious Worcester will put their long-term business plan on the line at the end of a second-tier Championship campaign so unloved by the rugby public that they consider the phrase "hopelessly cockeyed" to be a compliment. Whatever this is, it isn't progress.

Consider the situation. After 22 regular season games, Worcester finished top by the small margin of 19 points. They then played six play-off games against sides they had already beaten twice, beating them all again, and a semi-final against Bedford, which they very nearly lost. Now, they must see off the Cornish Pirates in a two-legged final – the second contest will be staged at Sixways a week today – to secure an immediate return to the Premiership, which they vacated in a red mist of sackings and squabblings a year ago. Long-winded? You could say.

But that's not the half of it. Of the four title contenders who emerged from the regular season/play-off concoction, only one – you guessed it, Worcester – were eligible for promotion. Two other clubs in the 12-team division, Bristol and Nottingham, claimed to meet the criteria and asked for a formal audit, but they dropped out of the running at the play-off stage. The other nine, Pirates included, did not bother with an audit of any description. Should the Cornishmen prevail at the end of the 160-minute final, no one will go up and Leeds will escape relegation by default. Unsurprisingly, the tournament remains unsponsored.

This being a Rugby Football Union production – the current system was introduced by Twickenham at the start of last season and will continue next term in an even longer form, with two-legged semi-finals to go with the elongated final – there is a lot at stake, a lot of face to be saved. The latest big hitter from the governing body to mount a defence of the competition is Rob Andrew, who has spent almost 20 years at the heart of domestic rugby politics and is all too familiar with the acute aches and pains associated with creating a viable structure for the professional club game in England.

"You have to remember how we got here," says Andrew, who is currently moving into a new job as the union's director of rugby operations. "When we cut the second division from 16 clubs to 12 to improve quality, there were the usual concerns about the financial consequences of a fall in home fixtures. That has been a focus of every "season structure" discussion I've ever been involved in, and I've been involved in lots. Also, we wanted to give as many teams as possible the chance to chase promotion. Under the old "first-past-the-post" system, the club coming down from the Premiership with a big parachute payment had a massive advantage. Did we really want what was effectively a 13-team Premiership, with the relegated side always going straight back up again?

"What we're trying to do is balance two things: we want the best side to be promoted, but we want to give more than one team a shot at being the best side. Under the play-off system, that happens – at least to a degree. It's a system that gave Exeter a realistic chance of promotion last year. They took that chance with both hands, and look where they are now. And you have to say that the Worcester-Bedford semi-final the other day was the best piece of rugby theatre we've seen all season. It's not a perfect fix, as we all know. But I think it's unfair to suggest that it doesn't have its merits."

All this feeds into a bigger question concerning promotion and relegation: namely, does it have any place in a sport where the Premiership clubs expect to lose a total of £19m this term and see no way of increasing investment in a difficult financial climate without ring-fencing themselves into the top flight? While promotion-relegation is routinely said to be sacrosanct for another five seasons under the existing agreement between the RFU and the clubs, Andrew thinks there may be some wriggle room.

"I don't think it's likely to change, but if the clubs really want to sit down and talk it through, we'll talk," he says. "This issue crops up twice a year, every year: initially at Christmas, when two or three teams at the bottom start worrying about relegation, and again around now, when we know the identity of the major side facing the drop. We've been having this discussion for 15 years and it never moves. Yes, there are obvious commercial advantages to ring-fencing, provided you're one of the clubs fenced in. Are there rugby advantages? We don't know, because we haven't tried it. What we do know is that we have more exciting young English talent playing Premiership rugby now than we've ever had before. Why? Because our agreement with the clubs, with its financial emphasis on the development of home-grown players, is working.

"When the sport turned professional, English club rugby went down the private investor road. I happen to think it's delivered a huge amount for the game: if we'd had franchises from the start, or moved to a franchise system in 1999 when the clubs were haemorrhaging money, would we have a Worcester or an Exeter now? Probably not. But when a sport is private investor-led, there is a risk attached.

"Suddenly, people are saying it's down to the RFU to help Leeds. But where do you start, and where do you end? Should we also be helping Sale, or pumping money into Cornwall? If I sat down with the 12 Premiership chairmen and another dozen from the Championship clubs and asked them where we should be going, I'd get 24 different answers. The one really strong argument is the one against killing off ambition, especially among the second tier of clubs. Do that, and you end up seriously weakened."

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