Aviva Premiership
Closing the shop would benefit us all
John Taylor
March 5, 2015
London Welsh have struggled to attract fans in Oxford despite a huge amount of community work © Getty Images

It feels almost traitorous to say this but I now believe automatic promotion and relegation between the Premiership and Championship should be abandoned and that doing so would be in the best interests of everybody involved. It was a bitter pill but now it is swallowed I also believe it is vital that we get on with it, if only to stop a lot of good rugby men throwing away more good money.

It has been difficult to come to terms with - I fought tooth and nail to get London Welsh promoted first time round because they had earned the right to be there - but, sadly, the facts speak for themselves. The gap between the Premiership and Championship is becoming a chasm, unbridgeable without the support of a hugely wealthy backer, and it is time we stopped pretending that the English game can sustain two divisions of full-time professional rugby - only French rugby can generate enough cash to do that.

Discussions have been going on behind closed doors for months, partly precipitated by London Welsh's predicament but also because everybody knows the present structure is unsustainable, and the reality is that there are almost certainly no more than 14 clubs with any aspirations to be a part of the top tier.

Gavin Henson takes the field for Bristol, Bristol Rugby v Moseley, Greene King IPA Championship, Ashton Gate, February 15, 2015
Gavin Henson is just one of Bristol's big-name signings © Getty Images

Wait, I can hear the cynics already thinking this a last desperate attempt to prevent London Welsh being demoted. Not true, going forward, I can see no future for any of the three 'Exile' clubs in the top two tiers of English rugby - more of that later.

'Owners' such as Nigel Wray of Saracens have long advocated the total ring fencing of the Premiership arguing that turning the top clubs into franchises would make rugby much more attractive to investors - great for those clubs like Saracens who happened to be at the top when the game became professional but anathema to those, like me, who believed in complete meritocracy in sport. The current proposals do not go that far but they do advocate a suspension of relegation for up to five seasons to allow clubs some security. I can live with that.

They also envisage enlarging the league to 14 clubs - except they may struggle to find a 14th. Worcester Warriors and Bristol are neck and neck at the top of the Championship - they have both lost once and are odds-on favourites to meet in the play-off final - with London Scottish in third place already 20 points adrift.

Bristol, of course, now have the billionaire Stephen Lansdown funding them with the declared aim of taking them back into the top flight, while Worcester's Cecil Duckworth, who has invested many millions since taking them from the obscurity of level six in 1997 to the Premiership in 2004, also still appears to have the appetite for yet another go despite being the archetypal yo-yo club.

But who else? Scottish have set the Championship as their ceiling for the present and their ground does not meet Premiership minimum standards for capacity or facilities. Nottingham (another 10 points adrift) have struggled to refinance while Dicky Evans, who has valiantly kept Cornish Pirates at the top end of the table over the past few years, appears disillusioned after having his plans for a new stadium in Truro (one area that could perhaps emulate Exeter and sustain a Premiership club) knocked back by the council.

Dean Mumm celebrates a try scored by Will Chudley, Exeter Chiefs v Bath Rugby, Aviva Premiership, Sandy Park, February 28, 2015
Exeter Chiefs have set an example as Premiership newcomers © Getty Images

Bedford have always said they are not interested in promotion which leaves only Leeds (or Yorkshire Carnegie as we must now call them), with Sir Ian McGeechan banging the gong, even interested in going for promotion. However, they are languishing in ninth place at the moment and do not appear to have attracted enough new investment so it is impossible to take them seriously.

Could London Welsh fill the vacant 14th spot? The numbers of supporters who do not even want them to try is growing. There is an impossible dichotomy between retaining our Welsh identity and competing in the top two divisions because, averaged out over a season, we are required to select a minimum of 15 English qualified players in the squad of 23 for each game if we are to qualify for the money that comes directly from the Rugby Football Union.

Everybody understands where the RFU is coming from. Why would you spend core funding on players who are not going to enhance the English game? However, their contribution (paltry though it is) represents most of the money clubs receive in the Championship and a significant proportion in the Premiership. The same, of course, applies to the Scots and the Irish.

We still had a Welsh heart to the team in our first season in the Premiership but now London Welsh has become a club owned, run and coached by Welshmen with almost no Welsh representation on the field. Many supporters are hankering for the days when Old Deer Park was a sporting, cultural and social Mecca for Welsh people in London with the whole of the team Welsh qualified.

That could still be the case if we were to drop two divisions to National Division 1 and there are a considerable number of players currently enjoying their rugby with Rosslyn Park, Richmond, Ealing Trailfinders and Esher who are Welsh Exiles. With disappointing support in Oxford despite a huge amount of community work a significant section of the London Welsh community believes it is time to go back to grass roots even if new funding for another tilt at promotion was available.

As Welsh have discovered the Premiership is not the promised land unless you have very deep pockets and any expansion will, of course, mean a smaller share of sponsorship and television rights to each club. There is already a huge gap between the have and have-nots in the existing structure. Wasps, for example, came perilously close to going out of business.

There is considerable support among the Welsh Regions for a British League with 22 or 24 clubs playing in two conferences. That is probably out of the question at this stage but it seems highly likely that in another decade the shape of the professional game in the four home unions will look radically different.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
John Taylor is a former Wales international who toured with the British & Irish Lions in 1968 and 1971. Since retiring he has worked in the media and has covered the last eight Lions tours as a commentator or journalist

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