Is relegation fear unfounded?
April 20, 2010
Worcester's Chris Cracknell consoles team-mate Kai Horstmann following their latest Premiership reverse at the hands of Wasps © Getty Images
There is something fundamentally contradictory about relegation in rugby which makes the emotions surrounding the issue difficult to gauge. The newspaper I write for used the phrase "edge of disaster" in the headline to Worcester's defeat by Wasps last weekend which pushed the Warriors closer to the drop to the second-tier Championship.
Yet when I left a sunny Sixways it was having seen an entertaining match (albeit with more than its share of crass mistakes), with the happy sounds of a live band in the bar ringing in my ears and the sight of a load of lads singing along in Wild West fancy dress making me chuckle my way onto the M5. More mirth than misery, it seemed.
Rugby people tend to be optimistic and phlegmatic, I think it's fair to say, and therefore unsuited to being burdened by a feeling they have failed or done something wrong by losing their place in a league. For this reason, it feels unnatural that anyone would take relegation from the Guinness Premiership too seriously, and to associate rugby with that crushing, doom-laden atmosphere football has long attached to taking the "dreaded drop". On the other hand, there are definite financial and other consequences which go along with going down to English rugby's second tier, the Championship.
The Worcester general manager said they would try to keep the squad intact but there are likely to be players leaving as well as cutbacks in casual labour and other areas if - as looks the like likeliest outcome - his club is relegated; these are even more likely if they fail to come straight back up after the single season in which they receive the Premiership's parachute payment.
Players who are out of contract at a relegated club - and quite a few who aren't - will quickly look to move to a better placed side. This is sensible to the player concerned, but it does fly in the face of another enduring principle of rugby; that of loyalty to your club and team-mates. No one would blame them for leaving, but how much of a boost to morale - and to morals - would it be if they stayed?
There are ambitions at stake, of course, for clubs' coaches, players and supporters: they want to match themselves against the best their country has to offer. This would be the main source of hurt for those Worcester supporters who were not singing last Saturday but crying into their beer or cups of tea long into the evening instead; the disappointment that the team they follow hasn't been up to the task they were set and will pay a public penalty as a result.
Leeds are expecting their biggest crowd of the season (they need to beat 7,596) when Worcester visit them next Sunday; maybe even above 10,000. This is a bizarre but well-known phenomenon. "Roll up, roll up, for the relegation face-off! Someone must go and we pray to God it's not us!" Coachloads of Worcester supporters will head to Yorkshire in the hope their team can reach 11th place in the Premiership and "survival".
Leeds have billed it as the million-pound match, reflecting the amount of money per season they say they will gain if they stay up, by becoming full shareholders in Premier Rugby. Cristiano Ronaldo or David Beckham might chortle at that but - again - this is rugby.
Some clubs have argued that the Premiership should be a closed shop. Failing that, they have argued for brakes to be applied; either a play-off for promotion, or a stay of execution for the bottom club for a couple of seasons, or - and these have long been in place - entry criteria which promoted clubs must meet.
These criteria together with the parachute payment to the team going down and the concentration of central funding from broadcasters and sponsors at the top of the rugby pyramid are making it less and less likely that a club will rise from the regional leagues to the top flight - as, guess who, Worcester did so strikingly in recent years. It is more probable than ever that Worcester or whoever is relegated in the next few weeks will "do a Northampton" or "a Harlequins" and regroup in the second tier before coming back as champions to re-join the arguably self-perpetuating elite in 2011.
This just adds to the impression that relegation, for all its status as one of the Premiership's marketing "pinch points" which create and sustain spectator interest throughout the season, is not much more than a tawdry sideshow trading on false emotions and real personal setbacks which rugby would be better off without. But it is right and fair that clubs like Bristol and Exeter should have access to the Premiership, so until someone comes up with a better system of allowing that to happen, we are stuck with it.
Hugh Godwin is a rugby writer for the Independent on Sunday