Wednesday, May 30, 2012

London Welsh should go up

London Welsh deserve congratulations for winning rugby union's Championship (the second tier of club rugby) tonight. Given that in principle there is automatic promotion to the premiership for the champions, they should now be looking forward to a season in the top flight.

But in a sport presided over by the Rugby Football Union, things were never going to be quite that straightforward - in fact the situation is truly bizarre. London Welsh were only told last week that they don't meet the stadium eligibility criteria for joining the premiership. This is despite existing premiership sides being in exactly the same position that London Welsh propose for next season - ground sharing with football clubs, and at least one (Bath) not meeting other criteria. But they are given special dispensation because they were already in the premiership when the rules were set.

Indeed, only three of the Championship clubs meet the ground eligibility criteria for promotion, meaning that the rest are playing only for pride. How did this state of affairs come about? When rugby union went professional in the mid-1990s, some clubs were quicker off the mark than others to adapt to the new situation. They then wanted to protect their investment (or pull up the ladder after them) by abolishing promotion and relegation from the new club premiership so that other clubs would not be able to follow in their footsteps.

But they were never quite able to force this through, so with the acquiescence of the Rugby Football Union, did the next best thing - namely to allow promotion and relegation, but to set criteria that  made it as hard as possible for clubs not already in the premiership to get there. The key rules were about stadium capacity, and if a ground was shared with another sport, whether the club had 'primacy of tenure' in other words that they had first call on the ground if required to stage a match at a particular time to comply with TV schedules. (This latter rule has been slightly modified since then).

Those who argued that unnecessary barriers should not be put in the way of clubs reaching the top tended to be dubbed 'romantics', as if the idea that success on the rugby field should determine a club's fortunes was a throwback to the sport's amateur days. In fact what premiership clubs wanted, and have to some extent achieved, is special privilege that shield them from the harsh business and sporting realities.

Using the stadium criteria to do this is a neat way of avoiding exposure to competition. Until rugby union went professional, only a handful of rugby clubs had a proper stadium, as opposed to a pitch with a stand along one side. Those that were fortunate enough to have a football club nearby whose stadium they could share, or who were fortunate enough to have a ground that could be expanded without falling foul of the planning system (or who like Leicester or Gloucester already had a proper stadium) were sitting pretty.

But London Welsh, who are of course one of the great names in club rugby, have a rather picturesque ground in a historic park in the shadow of the pergola at Kew Gardens. They wouldn't be allowed to put up huge grandstands on the three undeveloped sides of the ground. Other Championship Clubs face other problems - for example Cornish Pirates and Bedford, are pretty much tied by their name to a particular location but sadly lack a large enough soccer stadium nearby.

London Welsh now have to appeal to the RFU against the refusal of promotion and if unsuccessful take legal action to resolve which league they play in next season. And even if they do go up they will have hardly any time to recruit a premiership standard team - making relegation a virtual certainty.

It ought to be possible for all Championship teams to be promoted to the premiership. Unlike soccer, rugby union does not require rival supporters to be segregated at stadiums, rugby supporters are a hardy bunch who can take a bit of wind and rain, and no club will want to have a stadium with a low capacity and poor facilities if they can find a better alternative. So in my view, London Welsh should be able to play in the premiership at Old Deer Park if they wish, rather than having to ground share with Oxford United FC (and still apparently not meet the premiership criteria). Or perhaps clubs could be promoted provided they achieve premiership criteria within three years (these defined as having to match rather than exceed the stadium standards achieved by existing clubs).

If artificial barriers to promotion are removed, it might create a healthier sense of competition within club rugby, and less of a sense that being relegated to the Championship (currently unsponsored and largely unreported by press and broadcasters) is less like being cast into outer darkness because at any given time it will contain a handful of big name clubs.

I fear that the premiership clubs and RFU will do all they can to protect the cosy cartel and shut London Welsh out. But I hope they are unsuccessful, because if they win it really will make a laughing stock of a great sport - and deter other ambitious clubs from investing in the sport.