Should relegation be scrapped due to the pandemic?

Should relegation be scrapped

With more and more games being called off in the English Premiership and the result decided by which team caught the virus, questions have been raised about whether relegation should be scrapped for this year.

Should relegation be scrapped?

With the Premiership’s current system to deal with Covid cancellations awarding 4 points and a victory to the team unaffected by Covid and two points and a loss to the team suffering an outbreak, there is the potential for a scenario where a team who fulfills all its fixtures could be relegated instead of a team that got more ‘2-points’ awarded for Covid losses. This has led to calls for relegation to be scrapped this year if relegation cannot be decided on a pure sporting basis.

The case for scrapping relegation

Currently, Gloucester sits bottom of the Gallagher Premiership, with six points, having had no games called off. London Irish, currently in 10th, and Worcester Warriors, currently in 11th, have both had 4 points awarded to them, one ‘Covid-win’ for Warriors and two ’Covid-losses’ for Irish. Had these games gone ahead and both teams lost without picking up any bonus points they would now sit below Gloucester in the table.

From a purely sporting perspective this is an unfair scenario should it be the difference between the 12th placed team and a team above them come the end of the season. Scrapping relegation would allow teams a bit of certainty in uncertain times and allow teams to focus on their player’s safety which should be paramount above sporting considerations.

The second part of the argument for scrapping relegation is financial. Rugby has been hit hard by the pandemic, playing games behind closed doors has stripped teams of a lot of their income. Taking relegation off the table would allow teams to plan for the future knowing what income they would expect to have coming in over the next couple of years.

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The case against scrapping relegation

Ring-fencing the Premiership is not a new debate, it has been raised before as teams look to secure their place at the top table, the pandemic happens to be a wrinkle in the same argument.

While taking away the threat of relegation has benefits for those in the top tier in terms of immediate financial security, it could eventually become a detriment to the league. With no sporting intrigue once teams are out of contention for the playoffs, the television rights and appeal would be devalued.

Last season Exeter won the Premiership and European Champions Cup, and Bristol won the European Challenge Cup. Both teams have been promoted from the Championship in the last 10 years. If you take away relegation and promotion you would take away the ability for clubs in the lower leagues to come up through the ranks and develop into contenders, a huge part of the appeal of British sport.

If the Premiership were to scrap relegation for the 2020/21 season it would likely see a legal challenge from Championship teams. Relegated Saracens would be at the forefront of any courtroom challenge to such a move and even if the Premiership was to expand to 13 teams to accommodate them, at least Ealing Trailfinders (who considered legal action after the curtailment of the Championship led to Newcastle Falcons being promoted) and maybe other teams would look to stop such action especially after the RFU announced a cut in funding for the second tier for the 2020/21 season in February 2020.

Solution

There is no perfect solution to this situation however a short-term change may provide the answer, for example, scrapping relegation for two years only in an expanded Premiership format with a guaranteed return of promotion and relegation in 2022/23. This would mean the Premiership would be expanded to 14 teams for the 2021/22 season, playing in a similar format to the Pro14 with two divisions of seven teams playing everyone in the same division home and away and the teams in the opposite division only the once. Saracens and Ealing Trailfinders, who have finished runners up in the past 3 years, would be added to the top tier to make up the numbers.

The Premiership could also compensate the remaining Championship clubs from their television deal to make up for the lack of promotion and help secure the future of these clubs while they continue to develop ready for the return of promotion and relegation in 2022/23.

The pandemic has changed the face of World Rugby, especially at club level with the breakup of Super Rugby and the addition of South African teams to the Pro14. The English game must adapt as well. While there are no perfect solutions, it may be time to try something new if clubs are going to survive long term at the professional level.

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