Promotion puzzle yet to be solved
July 6, 2012
London Welsh have earned the right to contest the Aviva Premiership crown this coming season © Getty Images
Chances are the suits at Premiership Rugby haven't heard of Feliks Zemdegs but how they must wish they had his ability to assess a problem and solve it in a matter of seconds.
For those not in the know, the fresh-faced Zemdegs holds the current world record for solving a Rubik's cube having mastered the puzzle in a simply astounding 5.66 seconds. In contrast, English rugby chiefs appear to have been pondering the promotion-relegation issue for a decade or more, but still cannot fathom it let alone solve it.
Unlike Zemdegs, who barely blinks before giving it his finger-blurring best, the country's leading clubs and the Rugby Football Union have continually failed to strike an agreeable balance between the desire for stability and security within the top division and the aspirations of those knocking on the door.
Time and time again the sport's powerbrokers have sat back convinced they have the puzzle beat only to turn it over and find a rogue square out of place - on this occasion London Welsh. The Premiership is rightly proud of their product but instead of basking in that success at the end of each season, they have routinely found themselves dogged by a debate of their own making and one that blights the game as a whole.
But London Welsh's brave and successful bid to overturn a decision to block their promotion to the Premiership summit not only revealed the 'minimum standards criteria', and the 'primacy of tenure' requirement in particular, as flawed as long thought, but also gifted the powers that be the chance to right previous wrongs and they should embrace the opportunity.
The desire to 'ensure the high standards across the Premiership both on and off the field' is perfectly valid and admirable but to deny entry to others who can quite clearly meet those demands just as well as those already gracing the top flight was, and is, plain wrong.
London Welsh's legal heavyweights were positively salivating at the chance to tear into the Minimum Standards Criteria (MSC) safe in the knowledge that UK and European competition law was on their side and their subsequent success leaves you wondering if Rotherham were hard done by having been denied on the 'primacy of tenure' issue a decade ago. Similarly, you wonder if beaten Championship finalists Cornish Pirates sense a missed opportunity. Frustrated in their attempts to get the green light for a new stadium, they may well have sought a ground share of their own if they knew it was a viable option.
A long overdue review of the MSC is now inevitable. You either have promotion and relegation or you don't. A halfway house that appears to protect the interests of the elite at the expense of the rest of the rugby pyramid is simply not acceptable and on recent evidence makes fools of too many people who should command authority and respect.
A repeat of this season's sadly predictable saga must be avoided. Thanks to a convoluted Championship play-off format and a drawn out appeal process, London Welsh find themselves playing catch-up in terms of recruitment while their Premiership rivals will benefit from significantly more central funding. Faced with such constraints, these wannabe clubs could do without having to jump through endless hoops in terms of their chosen home ground.
Across the Channel, the Top 14 make no demands in terms of hi-tech stadiums with the ProD2 and the play-off winner assured of promotion if they earn the right on the field. As important the safety and commercial considerations laid down in the MSC are, and no doubt echoed in the Top 14, what matters most is that the teams are able to compete both on and off the field.
The afore mentioned financial pressures, especially in the current economic climate, make this increasingly difficult and the presence of the 'primacy of tenure' double standard, that allowed the likes of London Irish, Saracens and London Wasps to enjoy such a freedom without any penalty, only added weight to the claims that the Premiership was being run for the benefit of their existing members and at the expense of the leading Championship clubs.
No-one can deny that competition is good for the game, so the sport cannot afford to alienate and infuriate those willing to dig deep to and ensure that clubs from the second tier and beyond press for higher honours. They would soon start deserting the clubs and the game if the Premiership was out of their reach.
Taking the promotion decision out of the hands of RFU in favour of an independent panel appears to be a step in the right direction. But there is no guarantee that this move will prevent the perennial ugly debate that re-surfaces each season around the festive period and continues to simmer through to the end of the season and beyond.
Just as important will be a re-writing of the MSC. A scrapping of the painfully-detailed requirements in their entirety may not be the answer but rest assured the 'primacy of tenure' demand is a thing of the past. Ground share agreements will no longer be frowned upon and should arguably be actively encouraged by Premiership Rugby.
In the words of Geoff Irvine, chairman of the Championship clubs: "Instead of trying to denigrate them because they haven't got their facilities right, they [Premiership Rugby] should give the clubs some time to get their facilities in order and also try to help them do it."
Premiership Rugby would argue that they do offer a helping hand in terms of guidance to all those hopeful of making a step up but until now that appears to have amounted to no more than a map with which to navigate the jungle that is the MSC.
In reality, it was a puzzle to match of any invented by Erno Rubik but it has been solved by London Welsh in what could prove to be a monumental moment in the history of the sport and most definitely one of the most significant developments since the game turned professional.
Premiership Rugby, and their power-wielding allies, may be best served by following London Welsh's lead when it comes to problem-solving, who drew largely on the approach adopted by many frustrated by the world-famous cube, and reach for the hammer.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.