Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Relegation and promotion are too important to mess around with, says Stuart Barnes
Stuart Barnes says the drama of relegation must be kept in rugby, but the play-offs need changing.
Last Updated: 15/04/14 12:04pm
In the leading leagues the play-off system comes into its own although question marks remain over the Greene King IPA play-offs.
Simply put, there is too much at stake for the winners of the Championship to be decided by four matches at the end of the season. The best team in the league should be promoted and the best team in this particular league is the one that wins the most points from the start to finish of the league.
This Friday Bristol meet London Welsh. Should the home team win they will have wrapped up top spot; effectively they will be champions but that does not mean they will be promoted. To achieve that they must win a semi-final and final play-off.
Exciting as the play-offs are, the stakes are too high for qualification to revert to a knock-out competition. It is great for neutrals and the teams in second, third and fourth position, but the criterion for promotion should be the team that wins the league goes up.
In the elite European leagues the play-off system has a valid reason for existence. The number of games in these respective leagues that clash with either autumn or Six Nations internationals place the clubs that produce the most internationals at a competitive disadvantage through that immediate period. A club team will think long and hard about developing internationals for their respective countries unless the safety net of the play-off system remains in place to give them a shot at winning leagues as well as producing internationals.
Many a club has been disrupted by excessive international call-ups through the season. For this reason the play-offs work at the top level. The argument is not in the slightest bit compelling when dropping a league. The RFU had an excellent 'Europe'. Let us hope sooner rather than later we complete the move from the ridiculous and idiotically conceived eight-team play-off tournament, or the four we are now at, to an out-and-out champion.
If the guarantee of an exciting denouement is required perhaps a play-off between the runner-up in the Championship and the eleventh placed team in the Premiership could be introduced. This season that would mean Newcastle facing probably London Welsh. The RFU might come round to this idea but the clubs will not. Many clubs would prefer no relegation at all. Saracens, forever the loudest such proponent, have been making the same old noises of late.
But the end of promotion and relegation is the beginning of rugby becoming a business first and a sport second. It means a game where profit and corporate compliance off the field takes precedence over results on it. It means the romance of a rise like Exeter's will be ended forever. There has to be a cut-off at some time or the teams outside the Premiership are then dismissed from elite aspirations forever. Nobody has that right.
In France, where the money and scale of competition is greater, relegation remains the untouchable rule and rightly so. Apart from the long-term ideals involved, clubs would be shooting themselves in the foot short-term. Would anyone have watched Newcastle, London Irish or Worcester since Christmas bar the supporters of the teams involved and without the threat - and also let us not forget the adrenaline-fuelled excitement - of relegation?
Super Rugby suffers at the tail-end of its season because it has no structure for promotion and relegation. England, like France, does and as much as sport driving business may irritate a few people, it continues to be the ideal model, financial insecurity and all. Harlequins and Northampton have been relegated and bounced back stronger. Bristol is in better shape than they have been in for years. Relegation is not the end of the world it has occasionally been claimed to be.
And if a relegation does have severe repercussions because a team has been as badly run on and off the field as Biarritz, should these affluent owners who have pretty much all made their money from the ways and wiles of capitalism not suffer the failure that is the lot of any normal business? To ask for special treatment is to make a case for a monopoly system. And would any of these people want their corporate areas of expertise to have been monopolies before they had a chance to make their way in business life?
In France this weekend, Oyonnax play Toulouse at home. They are fighting for their Top 14 lives. If they stay up and win this match the end of their season will be one this relative newcomer club will never forget. Perpignan are deep in the woods; they face Toulon at home in a critical game while Grenoble and Bayonne - the other contenders for the second drop spot - meet each other.
The threat of relegation gives all these games oxygen. Sport is not just about winning. It is about surviving, sometimes not surviving, and someone else - if the system exists - having a shot at the big time. Anyone who tells you any different is plain wrong.
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Hi Stuart, What have you made of Manu Tuilagi's return from injury - and how crucial is it for England to have him fit and firing come the World Cup next summer?
STUART REPLIES: Manu Tuilagi looks in good physical nick. His power makes him an important component in the England attacking armoury, although there remain many aspects of his game in need of improvement in the next year or so.
Stuart, what is your verdict on the refereeing in the Gloucester-Bath match? Did Tim Wigglesworth have any choice but to brandish his cards? And what about the uncontested scrums? It seemed to me he lost control of the situation when emotions were already running high in the derby atmosphere.
STUART REPLIES:Benjamin, I hope you don't think me a fence-sitter - I am many things but not that. Alas, I will not be watching the derby match until Thursday as I was taking a few days off last weekend. Hard to comment but I bet it was nothing like as brutal as these derbies were in the 80s and 90s, when television cameras were not around in the number they now are to put Gloucester or Bath off from committing some terrible deed before retiring to the bar to compare scars....
Stuart - who's your money on to bag that final play-off spot? Quins or Bath? I reckon now they're back to full strength Quins might just nick it. But it should be a great race to watch between now and the end of the season!
STUART REPLIES:Mark, with Bath having the points in the bag and Worcester at home while Harlequins have to beat in-form Leicester the money must be on Bath securing the spot before the two teams meet in what would be a great play-off play off. At the moment, though Bath are favourites to get there, the trip to Harlequins is where the odds will swing if my old team has to win there to qualify.