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Premiership may put two-year halt on relegation to ease clubs' financial plight

Gerard Meagher
·2-min read

A halt to relegation for two seasons followed by the introduction of a play‑off between the Premiership’s bottom side and the winners of the Championship is among the options being explored by top-flight clubs amid the continued impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While ending relegation has long been on the agenda for Premiership clubs, the issue has come to a head with the recent flurry of cancelled matches. According to a report in the Rugby Paper, some clubs have sought legal action and are confident of mounting a successful challenge if they were to go down this season as a result of Covid‑affected results.

Related: Saracens shake off the rust but slip up at Ealing in long-awaited return

Relegation could be financially ruinous with fans not currently allowed into stadiums and no sign that capacity crowds will return any time soon. Clubs have lost more than £5m during the pandemic and, though the government announced a £59m rescue package for the Premiership in November, extreme difficulties remain.

A number of ideas have been discussed and well-placed sources have told the Guardian that pausing relegation for two seasons, to provide an added element of security in the early stages of the post-pandemic landscape, is among them.

For next season that would mean a 13-team Premiership with Saracens favourites to win the truncated Championship – though Saturday’s friendly defeat by Ealing Trailfinders demonstrated that Mark McCall’s side may not have things all their own way.

For the following season it would also mean expanding the top flight to 14 teams – after promotion but no relegation – with a play-off at the end of that campaign. There has been a reluctance to expand to 14 teams in the past because it would mean a smaller slice of the central funding pot for the current shareholders but, significantly, this would avoid totally closing off the Premiership to Championship clubs, with Ealing’s victory on Saturday a statement of their top-flight credentials. Strictly speaking, the Premiership would not be “ringfenced”.

That is significant because the Rugby Football Union council would have to approve any changes over relegation and promotion and there is considerable opposition to ringfencing among its members. When the RFU blocked a formal proposal to ringfence the women’s Premier 15s in 2019 it was considered a shot across the bows of the Premiership clubs, who subsequently shelved their plans to pull up the drawbridge.