With the Rugby World Cup having come to a conclusion, focus is now being shifted back to the domestic leagues and with four games having been played in the Premiership things are looking awfully familiar.
Sitting at the bottom of the table and remaining pointless are London Irish and Newcastle Falcons, who together have already managed to concede a total of 285 points. This isn’t a new occurrence for English rugby. Last season saw London Welsh set records for all the wrong reasons, finishing the season winless, having conceded over a thousand points and only having one point to show for their efforts. It was the worst performance the Premiership has ever experienced.
But is it really these team’s fault that they are underperforming against the top clubs in the nation? The relegation system that the league uses doesn’t provide a stable ground to build and develop a successful team. With the constant fear of relegation looming at the end of the season, and all that it brings including lower revenue and potential loss of star players, coaches have to take more risks to try and survive for another season. In contrast to this, you only have to look at how leagues without relegation operate. For example the National Hockey League in North America doesn’t relegate or promote teams and it’s easier to see how this affects a coach’s mind set. Currently the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team with one of the worst records in the league, are going through a complete rebuild, aiming to build a sustainable team for that future. They are attempting this through the development of younger players with a lot of potential, something which, if implemented in the English rugby system, could have positive effects for the national squad.
The promotion/relegation system also has impacts for the Championship. Having the last leg to win promotion being a knockout can mean a team that deserves to play in the Premiership end up stuck playing against teams far below them in terms of skill due to an off day. A perfect example of this is Bristol, who between the 2013/14 and 2014/15 won 40 of 45 games in the regular season and then went on to lose out both times in the playoff finals, most notably 59-58 in a two legged match against Worcester in the 2014/2015 season. Bristol’s poor playoff performance was the reason a surprised and unprepared London Welsh side was promoted to the Premiership when a far more experienced Bristol side could have easily performed better.
Whatever happens, it doesn’t look good for the Premiership with teams that turn up only to have tries run around them week in week out, and certainly isn’t the reward the players and fans deserve for being promoted. Likewise, for the Championship, having teams far more skilled than the others makes the season almost pointless. It was clear after four weeks that the playoff final for the Championship last year was going to be between Bristol and Worcester, just not who was going to win on the day. Not exactly entertaining, which ultimately should be the top priority for the organisers of the league.
However, changes could be on the horizon. The Guardian reported back in March 2015 that “The Premiership Rugby chief executive, Mark McCafferty, has confirmed that the English club body is looking at adding two teams to the top-flight domestic league.” But with a plans only starting to be tentatively talked about it looks like we are in for at least another three years seeing the top flight teams rack up ridiculous amounts of points against outclassed opponents.