It is now 10 years since Newcastle traveled to Wasps, needing to win by 24 points to leapfrog their opponents at the foot of the table and avoid relegation on the final day of the season. Ultimately, the Falcons edged a four-point win, going down to the Championship swinging while Wasps narrowly avoided falling into the abyss. It was not a classic but for tension you couldn’t beat it and it is worth noting it was one of the rare occasions when Wasps attracted a capacity crowd in High Wycombe.
A decade on and a cursory glance at both the table and the fixture list suggests that Worcester’s home match against Bath on Saturday should be similarly dramatic. All roads really should be leading to Sixways but with relegation on pause until at least the summer of 2024, Worcester and Bath will play out a dead rubber. The sense of apathy is palpable and not just because Bath have recently been giving the impression they have already clocked off for the summer.
Premiership Rugby this week reaffirmed the commitment to a return of relegation in two years’ time – or rather reminded us that is what the agreement says, because given the stringent criteria for promotion, given the security it offers Premiership clubs, it cannot be taken as read. The Premiership Rugby chief executive, Simon Massie-Taylor, also argued that the absence of relegation has not had a material impact on audiences and that it is a necessary evil after the financial hardship brought on by the pandemic, when clubs were losing millions of pounds and pushed to the brink of bankruptcy. Still, we approach the final day of the regular campaign with little on the line. Fourth place is yet to be decided but Northampton are hot favorites to clinch the victory they need against Newcastle, who have won once in the league since November. Saracens’ team selection against Gloucester – the other side in contention for fourth – only serves to emphasize the feeling that we are killing time until the playoffs begin.
Instead, it is a final day most notable for the number of farewells being made because the amount of players without contracts for the next season has increased significantly and the number of high-profile players seeking bigger contracts overseas is also on the up. Faf de Klerk, Lood de Jager, Taulupe Faletau and Malakai Fekitoa to name but a few are all departing this summer – the latter two to the URC where clubs now boast more spending power than those in the Premiership with the salary cap coming down and the marquee player allowance cut from two to one.
Of the players without clubs for next season, Massie-Taylor suggests that rather than the middling pros being squeezed out it is actually those closer to international recognition, who would command higher salaries feeling the pinch. That in itself is a concern given they ought to be sought after with England players set to miss around 50% of their clubs’ league matches next season but it is saying something when someone like Simon Hammersley, only recently turned 29 and running out for England against the Barbarians three years ago, is calling time on his career to pursue other interests away from rugby. “People talk about the squeezed middle but I think it’s actually more towards the upper end where some players’ contracts aren’t renewing,” says Massie-Taylor. “Clearly it’s a really tough period in anyone’s life when their career ends. But it’s so important that future salary caps are linked to future earnings.”
If that all serves to paint a bleak picture of the Premiership, however, in many ways the league is thriving. Viewing figures are significantly up, tries and points scored are sore and there is a level of competition that other leagues would kill for. Who would have foreseen Bristol’s demise at the start of the season? Or that predicted London Irish would be involved in five thrilling draws? Whether that is a consequence of the absence of relegation, or of the tweaks to the law book, or both, remains to be seen but there can be a little doubting that the on-field product is improving. And for all that the A-list overseas players are drying up, anecdotal evidence suggests supporters are just as happy watching homegrown players bursting on to the scene. The last few weeks have been interrupted by European weekends with little or no English involvement but next weekend will see two semi-finals in which the winners are genuinely hard to pick before a showpiece final seeking to emulate last season’s remarkable match between Harlequins and Exeter.
Still, though, there is the sense that so much more could be done to break the glass ceiling that the Premiership finds itself under. The NFL is so often held up as the model to follow and in terms of fan engagement and innovation that is certainly something to aspire to but the key difference is that there is no international game in American football and how the Premiership will always have to coexist with the national teams’ interests.
Massie-Taylor talks of gradual improvements – he does not expect any “Big Bang” moment where the global calendar suddenly aligns or where crossovers between club and international fixtures are eliminated but rather slow and steady progress. “Some mountains you can’t move,” as Massie-Taylor puts it but soon to be occupying a lot of his time is the new Professional Game Agreement between the clubs and the Rugby Football Union that governs funding, player release, the promotion and relegation mechanism and pretty much everything to do with the club-country relationship.
His role is fascinating because, having previously been the RFU’s chief commercial and marketing officer he has seen both sides of the fence. He went to the Premiership with the RFU’s blessing but he will have a unique insight when sitting down to negotiate a deal with the union’s chief executive Bill Sweeney, who in March lamented the existing structure as effectively being broken. “There are two things that need to be solved,” says Massie-Taylor. “One of them is the fact that England are not performing as well as they want to, the other is that the club system is not sustainable yet and they are of mutual interest.” Sounds simple put like that but others have been trying with limited success ever since the game went open in the mid-90s. Promises of genuine, tangible progress give rise to optimization but it will have to be seen to be believed.