The Premiership's neglected region
September 7, 2010
Exeter's Phil Dollman is welcomed to the Premiership © Getty Images
When Exeter won their first match in the Premiership against Gloucester last week there were plenty of smiling faces at Sandy Park - and that was just in the press box. The media in England are often and probably justifiably criticised for being London-centric, but a fair number of the most prominent rugby writers live in the west country.
A successful Exeter would be right up their street, almost literally, and one correspondent from a Sunday broadsheet looked particularly chuffed, considering the Chiefs' stadium is just an energetic cycle ride from his home.
Leaving aside these terribly selfish considerations, the questions raised by Exeter's arrival among the elite after 13 years spent in the second tier - during which they finished second or third seven times though never top - are why has it taken so long and does it represent an opportunity grievously overlooked?
Some of us can recall day one of the leagues in England, in the 1987-88 season. It wasn't a big deal - 11 matches you had to fit into your traditional fixture list wherever you could, and to begin with a few of them didn't even get played. I remember a commemorative photo being taken to mark the first match between Nottingham and Moseley. The drawback was that it was taken after the final whistle so one captain - of the losing side of course - looked significantly more miserable than his opposite number.
It was all pretty ad hoc but it was what was wanted by people dissatisfied with the old higgledy-piggledy structure of merit tables and cobweb-encrusted fixtures with the services, universities and such-like. Since then there has been gradual development, investment and evolution to reach the Aviva Premiership we see today.
From crowds in three or four figures in those initial seasons when most clubs played at homely little grounds surrounded by residential streets, we have 75,000 spectators at Twickenham for the London Double Header, and an average of 13,000 spectators last season. No one knows whether the league has reached its peak or if it can carry on to the average 17,000 attendance Premiership Rugby are hoping for in the next few years.
What we do know is that throughout these two-and-a-bit decades of leagues Devon and Cornwall have been notable by their absence from the top division. Individual players such as Phil Vickery and Graham Dawe have been obliged to join Gloucester, Bath and Bristol (in the main) to make their way but their home counties have been a Premiership-free zone until now.
This despite the great interest in and love of the game in the region, which can be seen in the number of clubs in the higher reaches of English rugby - currently two in the Championship and two in National League One. You may also remember 40,000 Cornish fans travelling to Twickenham for a county final against Yorkshire in 1991 and inbound tour matches enthusiastically supported at places like Redruth with their famous 'Hellfire Corner'. I would argue that if you were drawing the Premiership up from scratch on a blank sheet of paper you would definitely include a team from Cornwall and possibly one from Devon too.
Instead, with the way things have gone it has been left to each club to make the best of their situation. The likes of London Irish and Saracens were in the right place at the right time as professional rugby developed, and now they are well known "brands", though I find it very confusing as to what their brands genuinely represent. Berkshire and Hertfordshire? Ireland and South Africa? Rugby and having a good time? That's not a bad slogan, I guess.
Of course these clubs and the other well known Premiership sides have invested a lot of money in facilities and players, but I have never agreed that this completely voluntary outlay gave them the right to dictate was what good for everyone else in the English game.
That should have been the national union's responsibility but they have proved unwilling or unable to do much about it, save for their steadfast opposition (led by the now former chief executive Francis Baron) to the Premiership hard-liners who wanted to do away with promotion and relegation. It is in fact only that narrow drawbridge - one place a year available to the winners of the Championship - which gives the likes of Exeter the chance to rise up. Economically, geographically and demographically, the balance could be better spread by including the far west, but there is no way any existing Premiership club would volunteer to give up what they have.
The biggest Premiership shareholders believe their greater allocation from central funding - roughly double that of Exeter's new boys - is rightfully theirs, partly for what they have done to "create" the Premiership. In this system, all men are equal but some or more equal than others. I am sure they would argue that the way is still open and that if a region such as Devon and Cornwall is genuinely strong, then a club will come through and prosper. But Exeter have a weaker squad than most for well documented reasons, and if they get relegated Devon and Cornwall will be on the outside looking in again.
The best but very unlikely answer if the current system is not going to change would be for the two counties to invest everything they have into one club - perhaps, and here's an idea, splitting its home matches between two grounds, as Munster do, say, with Cork and Limerick. The Premiership "brand" as a whole would surely have been stronger for a west country presence, as would English rugby. It might have meant one out of Saracens, Wasps and London Irish would have to go, but which one of them has a 'Hellfire Corner'?
Hugh Godwin is a rugby writer for the Independent on Sunday