The Premiership will expand to 14 teams after next season and there will be no threat of relegation for the next two campaigns after the Rugby Football Union approved major changes to the domestic structure in England.
Saracens are returning to a 13-team Premiership next season and on Tuesday the RFU approved plans for further expansion with the Championship winners joining a 14-team league for the 2022-23 campagna. That season, there will be no relegation or promotion and the following campaign will see a play-off introduced between the side who finishes bottom of the Premiership and top of the Championship.
The stated intention is that from the 2024-25 season, automatic promotion and relegation will resume, unless the RFU council decides otherwise. That is a considerable caveat and Premiership Rugby has revealed there is a strong chance the play-off will remain in place. “This is a plan for three years and then we’ll look at the next three years,” said Premiership Rugby’s Nigel Melville. “If we went to [the RFU] with a better opportunity I’m sure they would agree.”
Expanding to 14 teams will also mean more matches per season and will lead to greater concerns over player welfare. And in a sea change, having previously bemoaned too much crossover between domestic and international matches, the Premiership is now embracing it.
“Player welfare is unchanged. We manage every game the players play – and nothing changes,” insisted Melville, chairman of PRL’s investor board. “The criteria is exactly the same so players won’t be expected to play more. And we’re accepting that we have overlapping games, avoiding that is extremely difficult. We can’t really develop the season based around 35 players. We accept they aren’t always going to be available, that’s why we have the playoffs.”
The upshot is the 13 stakeholder clubs are safe in the knowledge there will be no relegation for the next two seasons. Even after that they would fancy their chances of avoiding 14th place and dodging the promotion playoff. For aspiring Championship clubs such as Ealing Trailfinders, Cornish Pirates and Doncaster there is the opportunity to join the top flight as the 14th team with a further season to consolidate.
And both Premiership Rugby and the RFU can insist they have not introduced ring-fencing because of the promotion playoff and the stated intention to eventually return to a one-up, one-down format. “This is not ring-fencing the Premiership as some have suggested,” the RFU president, Jeff Blackett, claimed.
The devil, tuttavia, will be in the detail. For the Championship clubs hoping to become the 14th team, there will be the opportunity to buy P-shares which would allow them to become an equal member alongside the existing 13 teams. That is a positive move because the odds are stacked against teams who are not shareholders surviving in the Premiership. But the Premiership clubs estimate the value of P-shares at around £20m, the Championship clubs around £15m.
The Championship clubs must also meet the minimum standards criteria for promotion, which is significant because Ealing were told on the eve of their playoff with Saracens they had failed, because they could not provide evidence they had a suitable stadium.
It is understood that they did have an agreement to use a ground that had passed an RFU audit but had not signed it because they were still waiting for details such as how much funding they would receive as a non-shareholder should they be promoted. Despite Monday’s announcement, those details remain thin on the ground.
In exchange for granting the Premiership’s wishes, it should come as little surprise that the RFU has secured greater access to the clubs’ England players. Holding the final vote over structural change and player access have always been the two organisations’ greatest bargaining tools. Così, the Premiership has agreed the 2022-23 season will end in May to allow Eddie Jones even more time to prepare his players for the next World Cup.