Championship race a thriller but meaningless as RFU lets limbo linger | Championship
OOne of English rugby’s hottest title races in years now comes to a lukewarm end. After weeks of back and forth with their rivals, Ealing started the weekend knowing that victory over Richmond would crown them Championship champions, regardless of the outcome in Doncaster on Friday night. But Monday morning there will be a sense of limbo, regardless of the results on the pitch.
The Rugby Football Union ruled last month that Ealing and Doncaster – the only two clubs to apply to be eligible for promotion – had failed to meet the minimum standards criteria. These criteria are approved by the Professional Game Board, where Championship clubs are represented, as well as RFU and Premiership clubs. The main sticking point is the capacity of the stadium which the MSC says needs to be 10,001 – neither Ealing nor Doncaster are particularly close, but as the RFU recently acknowledged the minimum for football grounds of Premier League is 5,000 and the two aspiring clubs could meet it.
Premiership Rugby insists stadium size is just one issue among many. PRL has big ambitions to revamp the league and move closer to the NFL model and while there is a drive to admit a 14th team, that won’t be until they’re ready for the oven. The idea that a Championship aspiring club could be allowed to develop into the Premiership, having won the right to be there, is anathema to top-flight clubs whose ambitions look very much like a move to a system of franchise. Whether the promoted club is willing to pay north of £20m for a tranche of P shares – currently split between the 13 clubs – that may be a different story, but the message seems clear that second-tier clubs wishing trying their luck in the Premiership are not welcome.
Therein lies the rub, because while the RFU would admit the gap between the Premiership is cavernous and will only widen, the union cannot currently accept the top flight as a shop for good. First, the board would have to agree and members would be reluctant to endorse it given the local outcry it would cause. Secondly, the political context is necessary because the fact that the RFU has to approve structural changes is the union’s biggest bargaining chip with Premiership clubs and the Professional Gaming Agreement – the agreement which governs the release of players English – to be renewed in 2024.
All of this leaves us in temporary confusion. A moratorium on relegation was introduced last season and the plan was for this season’s Championship winners to advance to a 14-team Premiership. The 2022-23 season would see no relegation or promotion – giving Ealing or Doncaster a season grace – before a play-off between the bottom side of the Premiership and the Championship winners was introduced the following season. All is well until the RFU decides Ealing and Doncaster have failed to meet the criteria.
Both sides have expressed their intention to appeal the decision, but the RFU is not expected to make a final decision until late April, possibly even early May. That means around a month for the Championship winners unable to properly plan next season, unable to recruit with certainty. These clubs have already operated with one hand tied behind their backs and it is a credit to all Championship teams that they remain afloat after the devastating combination of the RFU’s searing budget cuts and the Covid pandemic -19.
The precedent for the appeals process is London Welsh, who were ultimately successful after scrambling to arrange a ground-share deal with Oxford United at Kassam Stadium in 2012. It was an absolute disaster, playing home games 50 miles away from their Richmond home, so it sticks in your throat to hear the RFU ask why Ealing and Doncaster haven’t arranged shared grounds. It was reported this week that Doncaster had belatedly lined up Hull KR’s Craven Park for their call-up, but it is understood Ealing did not ask for a share. A year ago, they struck a deal with Saracens to use the StoneX stadium if they won the Championship play-off, but even then they failed MSC on the grounds that he was unsigned.
This time, Ealing had offered a one-year plan to bring their current home, Vallis Way, up to 10,000 capacity. They would argue that the MSC promotes sustainability and that their proposal can achieve this when a piece of land is in short supply. Moreover, suspicion abounds and there is a feeling Premiership clubs may not have been ready to cut their RFU funding in 14 ways just yet. That RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney recently hinted that the stadium’s minimum capacity could drop to 5,000, but not that next year, only adds to it.
Meanwhile, the RFU is working on plans for a hybrid cup competition between Premiership second sides and Championship clubs for the 2023-24 season. If some clubs feel they lack the squad depth to get in, Premiership clubs could combine with Championship sides to get in. It is understood that if he is successful he could replace the Championship entirely, although the RFU poured cold water on the idea last week.
“Absolute horse manure is written about what we think of the Championship, it’s a brilliant part of the ecosystem,” said RFU performance director Conor O’Shea. “We believe this competition will give you the normal league structure, additional development and commercial opportunities and for our young players, it is a vital breeding ground for us. Our young players are not playing enough. The only way to become a better rugby player is on the pitch and we believe that [cup] the competition will keep us focused, the Premiership and the Championship are behind us.
It all looks like a solution to the very obvious problem that England’s young players don’t get enough playing time at the moment, but does little to address the fact that Championship aspiring clubs are seeing their ambitions muffled promotions. In the meantime, we sit and wait, suspended in limbo.