By denying London Welsh promotion to the Premiership, the RFU have opened a huge can of worms that is likely to see the matter end up in court. In previous years such decisions have passed quite quietly but not this year. The rugby community has been incensed by the timing of the announcement, the lack of transparency and consistency by the RFU and the conspiracy theories have already started.
A matter of hours before the first leg of the Championship Playoff final, the Exiles were told they were not eligible for promotion. Thus the fixture was meaningless as opposition Cornish Pirates had not applied for promotion. Still it appears that the decision spurred on Welsh as they raced into a 37-21 lead before the upcoming second leg. The next day Welsh indicated their desire to challenge to decision, even if this meant bringing the matter in front of a judge.
To date very little information has been brought to light by the RFU. We know that there were ‘numerous failings’ in the Exiles bid. However, the RFU’s main concern was ‘Primacy of Tenure’. The RFU states that clubs wishing to be promoted must secure the right to hosts games at any given time as set out by the RFU, Premiership rugby or broadcasters. A club may also nominate a substitute ground if their nominated ground is unavailable. Other criteria that must be met include the amount of light, the number of toilet facilities (and their location in the ground), medics on site and marketing.
Being as Old Deer Park, the Exiles traditional home, is far from Premiership standard the Kassam Stadium in Oxford was nominated as their home venue should they be promoted. Details of a contract between Welsh and Oxford Untied have emerged. The stadium is perfectly suited to Premiership rugby. It is modern, has all the facilities and has hosted the European Challenge Cup on two occasions.
It is clear that Welsh feel they have secured Primarcy of Tenure. In fact It would appear that a number of Premiership clubs do not have Primacy of Tenure. Wasps, Saracens and London Irish all ground share with a football club. Sale have moved from one ground share to another. Bristol, the only Championship side that met the Premiership entry criteria, would share with a football side. A little digging around discovers that sides already in the Premiership do not have to conform to the eligibility criteria, which has left the rugby community asking whether the Premiership is becoming a clique.
It appears that Newcastle, who finished bottom of the Premiership, have been thrown a lifeline. This is where to conspiracy theories begin. Many are of the opinion that the decision has been made based on geography. London doesn’t need another top flight club, but without Newcastle the North East would be left without any. Come the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the RFU will need to sell out St James’ Park as it stages games. Without local grass roots support this will prove to be a great challenge. Then there is the fact that the Falcons have announced 4 new signings in the week before the RFU’s announcement. Had Newcastle been tipped off that there Premiership status was safe?
One of the main selling points of the Premiership over the Pro12 is relegation. Sides must perform across a whole season to ensure they do not get relegated. Yet each year in the Championship there are only a handful of sides that can be promoted due to the entry criteria. For me the RFU are tackling the whole situation in the wrong way. By setting demanding entry criteria they are hindering the development of the game. Instead they should be working with the Championship clubs who have Premiership aspirations.
Take the Cornish Pirates for example. Their ground does not meet Premiership standards. There is no suitable ground in Cornwall. The only way for the Pirates to enter the Premiership is to build a new stadium. Is it really fair to ask a developing side to fork out £10m so they can enter the elite league? £10m that could be spent on improving the playing squad, youth development or community projects. The RFU should be working with the Pirates. In the same way Newcastle did, the Pirates present a chance to expand top flight rugby into another region. The Pirate themselves see this, yet the RFU do not. For the moment at least, the Pirates remain in an impossible situation.
To some it appears that the Premiership is becoming a clique. If you are in, you’re safe. Getting in however if a different matter. As previously stated other clubs are exempt from gaining Primacy of Tenancy because they already shared grounds when the ruling was introduced. There are also grounds that have hosted Premiership Rugby that are not up to standard. Bath’s ground is commonly referred to as the Wreck. If for some reason Bath were relegated, would they subsequently be denied promotion until they found a new ground? It is hard to believe that the RFU would deny such a traditional powerhouse of English rugby back into the elite!
The sad thing is that in the whole debate rugby is the loser. A side who have proved they cannot compete in the Premiership will remain there. Whilst a side who should have the chance to prove themselves are denied that. Either the Premiership needs ring fencing (which most fans would oppose) or the RFU needs to seriously consider how it supports Championship sides transitioning into the Premiership. Forget geography, stadiums and marketing, promotion should be based on merit.