Downsizing the European Champions Cup has been proposed as a way to protect player welfare if the Premiership is ring-fenced with more than 12 teams. Twenty clubs – including up to seven from England – currently take part in Europe’s elite competition but streamlining is among the suggestions made by powerbrokers of the English game in the event of an expanded Premiership.
Both the Premiership and the Rugby Football Union are in favour of removing promotion and relegation to and from England’s top flight but the major sticking point is how big it will be. There are 13 Premiership shareholders – the current 12 teams plus Bristol – and a handful of Championship clubs who have the ambition to join the elite.
It is understood the Premiership clubs do not want to expand beyond a 12-team ring-fenced league and as a result suggested a play-off between the bottom club and the winners of the Championship – to take place as early as next May – but the Guardian understands it has been rejected out of hand. The Championship’s heads of agreement with the RFU runs until the summer of 2020 so any structural changes before then would have required unanimous approval from the 12 second-tier clubs.
Nonetheless, there is an expectation that ring-fencing will be pushed through to start from the 2020-21 season when that agreement has ended. At present the Championship clubs receive in the region of £550,000 and that is likely to increase in the event of ring-fencing. As the current deal will have ended only a majority vote will be required and it is hard to imagine that not happening considering most Championship clubs are so reliant on the funding that comes from the RFU and Premiership Rugby Ltd.
But while ring-fencing seems increasingly inevitable, the issue of how to fit at least 13 clubs into a 12-team league remains. With relegation looming for London Irish, some clubs have looked into buying their shares from them but the Exiles have no intention of selling. Ealing Trailfinders, second in the Championship behind Bristol, have demonstrated the ambition – and significantly possess the requisite finances – to join the top flight, and it is understood the RFU has not ruled out a 14-team league, even if PRL is digging its heels in. Yorkshire Carnegie, who had their own Premiership shares until the end of last year, and Cornish Pirates have also demonstrated their ambitions with new stadiums planned, while Doncaster Knights have expressed an interest in joining the Premiership. Coventry, who will join the Championship next season, are also thinking big.
And if a 13- or 14-team Premiership were to materialise, it may be the European competitions that feel the pinch. There is a feeling that the Champions Cup has lost its aura with more than half of the Premiership taking part this season and fewer European matches would allow for an expanded top flight in England without adding to player workload.
While truncated European competitions could help solve the problem of determining how many teams occupy a ring-fenced top flight, there remain fears over how accessible it will be in the long term. Rather, access to the Premiership after either a four- or five- year hiatus would depend on certain criteria, including things such as supporter base and playing budget, exceeding that of one of the existing Premiership teams.
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