Up, down, in, out – the relegation shuffle is back

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The Independent Online

At the end of the season it will be one up, one down, and as Rotherham have opened up a useful lead over Worcester at the top of National League One, they are favourites to win promotion to the Zurich Premiership. If only it were that simple.

Rotherham are in talks with the owners of their Clifton Lane ground and the future of the Yorkshire club is dependent on the outcome. The Rotherham Athletic Company, established in 1905 by a group of local businessmen who bought shares in the project, secured the land as a site for a football and cricket club.

Rotherham United have long since moved and the ground is now shared between the rugby club and Rotherham Town cricket club. The two would prefer to stay at Clifton Lane but it ain't big enough for both of them. If the rugby team get sole occupancy they believe they can meet the strict criteria laid down for membership of the Premiership, a status warranted by performances on the field. It is, however, off the field that they face their biggest test.

Since Rotherham were promoted the season before last, the ground rules have changed considerably. For one thing the club earning promotion must be the owner or principal tenant of their ground. It is not a retrospective stipulation, so those teams who currently share football stadiums are not affected. There are also requirements on capacity, with so many seats under cover, the provision of floodlights and, of course, modern safety regulations. The criteria must be complied with by the end of next month.

When Rotherham went up they erected temporary stands and the only time they filled the ground, with a crowd of 4,500, was for the visit of Leicester. In the top flight they won only two of 22 matches, finished 26 points behind 11th-placed Harlequins and swapped places with Leeds, who are also finding life difficult in the Premiership.

The process of promotion and relegation, for only one place, will continue next year, after which there will be a review. Having reduced the league from 14 to 12 through the loss of Richmond and London Scottish, Tom Walkinshaw, chairman of the Premiership, argued against any changes and just about accepted the old system of a play-off between the top club of the First Division and the bottom in the Premiership.

His implacable enemy was Cecil Duckworth, the owner of Worcester, who accused Walkinshaw of "ring-fencing" before finally winning a three-year agreement on promotion and relegation. The problem is that Duckworth was chairman of the negotiating committee and there are those who take the view that only one club in the First Division fully meet all the criteria – Worcester. And they, uniquely, have received two grants from the RFU to improve spectator safety at their Sixways complex.

Through their arrangement with the Sport England Lottery Fund, the RFU have distributed a total of £600,000, Northampton Saints receiving the biggest grant so far of £174,000. The sum of £2.5m is available for clubs in the top two divisions, although those that ground-share with football teams are not eligible.

The champions of National League One will have to move upmarket and quickly. If they fail to satisfy the demands no one will be promoted (the club would receive a compensation payment) and nobody relegated. If Rotherham fail to secure the lease on Clifton Lane, there's the possibility of doing a deal with Rotherham United or moving to the Don Valley Stadium near Sheffield. Built for the World Student Games in 1991, it has a capacity of 20,000.

"The trouble is we couldn't just go to a football club because we still wouldn't have primacy of tenancy," Mike Yarlett, Rotherham's principal investor, said. One solution would be for Rotherham to buy a football club or vice versa. Whatever happens it's going to require a lot of capital, not least for upgrading the team with players who can compete in the Premiership. A signing-on cheque for £1.8m will soften the blow.

Some members of Premier League are thought to be in favour of a reversion to a 14-club league, although such a development is not likely in the immediate future. "Finding the ideal number of teams is something we'll be looking at in our strategic plan," Howard Thomas, chief executive of the Premiership, said, "but there would have to be good financial reasons for increasing it from 12 to 14. Would our revenue streams be diluted? Would the television companies pay more? One argument that would support it would be if there were increasing numbers of players graduating through the academies. Another consideration is the geographical fit." Yet another is Walkinshaw, who would probably have a fit if the league was expanded.

Irrespective of the plans of Rotherham or Worcester, Leeds and Harlequins – the bottom Premiership sides – are proceeding on the basis that someone will fall through the trap-door. "I'm just trying to keep the players relaxed," said Phil Davies, Leeds's coach, who today play troubled Saracens at Vicarage Road. "It is quite a challenge and quite an experience. Things are so tight in the table that the picture can change dramatically in a few matches. With our academy coming on line we believe we could become a real force within four to five years. It is up to the club to see how far they want to take it." They may have the academy on their side but time is another matter.

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