How to fix Premiership rugby

·5-min read
Jack Singleton of Gloucester charges forward - How to fix Premiership rugby - GETTY IMAGES
Jack Singleton of Gloucester charges forward - How to fix Premiership rugby - GETTY IMAGES

Wasps’ announcement that they intend to appoint an administrator, coming after Worcester Warriors’ separate financial crisis, has plunged into doubt the future of the Premiership as we know it.

The future of Wasps looks increasingly bleak following Wednesday’s sudden development, and though the club have attempted to ease fears over its long-term future, there are grave concerns for the sustainability of English rugby’s top flight.

The current 13-team structure, with no relegation, does not look fit for purpose. So how could the Premiership be revamped for the good of the game, those watching, and most importantly for those who depend on it for a living?

Telegraph Sport looks at the best scenarios that Premiership chiefs should consider.

Charlie Morgan

16 teams, two leagues, 18 matches

Clearly, there are caveats here. These team lists, based on last season’s finishes, assume that Wasps and Worcester Warriors escape their respective predicaments and are not sent down the pyramid. With that in mind, let us begin.

When it comes to the Premiership, frustrations that supporters used to swallow – namely clashes with Test fixtures and uncertainty over whether the best squad will be available – are becoming more grating. There is something badly wrong when an ideal recruit is someone not quite good enough for international honours.

Fewer matches will not necessarily mean a profit hit if the league becomes more marketable, both to attending fans and broadcasting companies. A reduction in games could bring about more full houses, which everybody wants.

In this 16-team format, I would have each team facing everyone in their own division home and away, with four randomly-assigned matches – two home, two away – against sides from the other division. New Zealand’s National Provincial Championship uses this method, which keeps derbies more regular.

Anyway, it is not the end of the world if you go a season without a Bath versus Gloucester dust-up, for example. Indeed, the rarity would make a reunion more special.

Splitting the top tier caters for big-spenders that are eager to increase the salary cap while retaining the intrigue of promotion and relegation. Hopefully, the security of two ring-fenced divisions – above a strong community pyramid – makes it less likely that clubs over-reach financially.

Back to caveats. Wasps and Worcester may not be around. Other clubs may wish to opt out – or opt in.  A maximum of 20 Premiership matches, keeping the current play-off system, offers breathing space and assures loaded line-ups.

This structure could be swelled to two leagues of 10, perhaps incorporating Welsh regions. In this case, either cross-division fixtures or play-offs could be scrapped to keep games down. Imagine a compelling title race.

Inevitably, any potential solution raises further questions. Should each division have separate salary caps to ensure fiscal discipline, for example? The Rugby Football Union will have to flex its muscles but, with cans of worms opening everywhere, decision-makers must grab their snorkels.

Ben Coles

10-team top tier to strengthen rest of the pyramid

Even before the futures of Worcester and Wasps became shrouded in doubt it was becoming clear that the Premiership's current format – 13 teams, no relegation – while only introduced temporarily to help clubs get back on their feet after the pandemic, does not work very well.

The Premiership's resources and talent have all been spread a little too thin, which makes the notion of 14 sides if Ealing are promoted fairly unsavoury, not least because – as noted recently by Rob Baxter – top clubs are currently deprived of their top players for too many fixtures throughout the season, an issue which stems from packing games into an overly congested calendar. Baxter's comments – which essentially translated as what's the point of paying elite players top dollar if you never get to use them – highlights how broken the system has become.

Fewer clubs in the Premiership sadly feels like a must, the unfortunate upshot being that a Wasps or a Worcester might not survive unless they're in the top flight. That is a painful thought, but then so is the idea of clubs spending money they never really have simply to try and stay competitive and subsequently falling into the mire. The feeling in recent weeks has been that the Premiership has overextended itself – how else can it thrive and progress other than by streamlining its product. Twelve teams feels right, but maybe 10 is the ideal target, creating a more competitive second division as a result.

The question can also be asked over whether Premiership Rugby are squeezing enough out of their TV rights deal with BT Sport, worth £40 million per year. When pitched against the Top 14's deal with Canal+, worth £99.2 million per year having recently increased terms by 17 per cent, it seems the league has been undervalued.

Charles Richardson

Two divisions, 14 teams and a four-team play-off – plus relegation

Two divisions of seven teams in a Premiership top tier, with Cornish Pirates, Ealing Trailfinders and Doncaster Knights all bumped up from the second tier – should Worcester and Wasps be relegated. All teams would play each team twice in a season and then the top two teams in each group would contest the end-of-season play-offs. The team finishing bottom of each pool is relegated to the second tier.

And, in the Championship, should be invited to join the Premiership Rugby Cup to add spice and new horizons to an ailing competition. Leicester, for example, might think twice about sending an academy side to Nottingham on a Wednesday night – in a reinvention of that once-esteemed East Midlands derby – for pride's sake. Conversely, Nottingham would be pumped.

Whatever happens in any potential restructuring of the Premiership – conferences, smaller leagues, a higher standard of second tier, ring-fencing – the derbies are integral to the league's growth. The East Midlands derby; the West Country derby; the London and northern derbies always showcase the absolute best that the league has to offer, with brimming stadiums and raucous parochiality, and any potential restructure must preserve these fixtures. If two different pools were created, separating Leicester and Northampton or Gloucester and Bath – among others – would be heinous at best and sheer lunacy at worst.