The RFU Council has today voted in favour of a range of structural changes to improve the financial stability and sustainability of professional rugby during the next three seasons while also providing benefits for England Rugby and the community game.
The Covid Recovery Plan, with a temporary pause on relegation, follows a detailed consultation that was announced in February after the RFU Council voted in favour of no relegation from Gallagher Premiership Rugby or the Greene King IPA Championship for the 2020/21 Season.
The extensive consultation included Premiership Rugby and their clubs, Championship clubs, The RPA, RFU Board and RFU Council.
The changes that will now be introduced include:
- The expansion of the Premiership to 14 clubs at the end of the 2021/22 season through the promotion (subject to meeting the required minimum standards) of the winner of the Championship, while supporting player welfare by maintaining the maximum game play limits and guaranteed rest periods*.
- Revised minimum standards criteria for clubs wishing to be promoted to the Premiership with wider game benefits such as financial sustainability, governance, player welfare, stadium facilities, medical provisions, safeguarding and community plans.
- A 2022/23 season in which no side will be relegated from or promoted to the new 14-team Premiership, allowing clubs to plan with greater certainty and supporting the recently promoted clubs in making the transition between leagues.
- A play-off in the 2023/24 season between the club finishing bottom of the Premiership and the winner of the Championship (subject to that club meeting the required minimum standards), with the result to decide which club plays in the Premiership during the following season.
- From August 2024, the intention is to move to a position where there is a mandatory England Qualified Players (EQPs) system under which Premiership clubs must have a minimum of 15 EQPs in each match-day squad and the end of the foreign player rule to provide better England player development opportunities while giving greater flexibility for Premiership clubs to select non-EQP players of any nationality. There is further work to do to agree the detail of this subject to a new Professional Game Agreement (PGA) and introduction into regulation.
- Increased preparation time for the England men’s squad ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup as a result of an earlier end to the Premiership season in May 2023.
- A commitment by the RFU and PRL to maintain current levels of funding to the Championship until the end of the PGA in 2024, providing a greater level of certainty for member clubs.
- Changes after season 2023/24 will be subject to the agreement of a new PGA and the approval of the RFU Council.
Unless Council agrees otherwise, from season 2024/25 promotion and relegation between the Premiership and Championship will revert to being on an annual one up, one down basis.
Speaking about the vote RFU President, His Honour Jeff Blackett said: “I would like to thank my Council colleagues for their extensive debate and consultation around these structural changes for the next three seasons. Council has carefully considered how to ensure a healthy professional game to support successful winning England teams that generate income to support the game at all levels, while maintaining the integrity of future league structures. The changes will undoubtedly benefit the game of rugby in England as we recover from the effects of the pandemic.
“This is not ringfencing the Premiership as some have suggested. In three of the four seasons covered by this, and our previous decision, a Championship club will have the opportunity to be promoted. Council has control of what happens thereafter and is committed to maintaining the integrity of the league structure by ensuring that access to the Premiership will be retained in the future.
“I would also like to thank Government for their enormous support for the community game with rugby clubs in England having a significant boost through an allocation of £30 million of government funding, the biggest single investment in the community game, following collaboration between the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Sport England, the RFU and the grassroots game.
“We are all looking forward to the start of next season and the welcome return of volunteers, players and fans.”
Rationale for Covid Recovery Plan and Temporary Pause on Relegation
The financial impact of Covid has led to a greater focus on the financial model of professional rugby clubs and the need to find a more sustainable solution to address financial losses while growing the game.
In 2017 the collective losses across PRL clubs exceeded £40m, in 2018 this rose to £50m, with further significant losses caused by Covid.
The extent of the financial disruption to the Premiership Clubs was such that they were required to obtain £88 million in loans through the Government’s Winter Sports Survival package.
Premiership rugby clubs are reliant on owners continuing to fund operational costs in the face of mounting losses. The fear of relegation and its significant economic consequences has in the past lead to short-term investment, further adding to losses. This is unsustainable and has been exacerbated by Covid.
Relegation from the Premiership costs a club at least £5m which has a very material effect on the ability of that club to finance its operations and has a significant impact on long term commercial partnerships.
Over the past 17 years, 14 teams that have been relegated from the Premiership have been immediately promoted the following season. The only years when this didn’t happen were 2009/10 (Bristol/Exeter), 2011/12 (Leeds/London Welsh), and 2015/16 (London Welsh/Bristol). This ‘trend’ has further strengthened in recent years with eight teams over the past nine seasons winning immediate re-promotion.
London Welsh became insolvent chasing the Premiership ambition. Exeter is the only club from outside the Premiership in 12 years that has successfully been promoted to the Premiership and maintained its position there. Everyone across the game would like to encourage more Exeter examples and avoid another London Welsh situation which significantly damaged that club.
The financial and performance gap between Gallagher Premiership Rugby and Greene King IPA Championship rugby is significant. Despite funding to the Championship increasing by 67% to its peak in 2016/17, a non PRL shareholding team has not been promoted to the Premiership since 2014, that team was relegated the following season.
*noting that maximum game limits may change as scientific consensus evolves.
Benefits for Premiership Rugby Clubs
With the context of Covid losses, a temporary pause on relegation will give club owners more certainty and stability to encourage strategic investment, attract long term partners and grow rugby union in England.
The proposal allows clubs to better control their costs. Without the constant threat of relegation, clubs will be able to promote academy players to a much greater extent, and not be so dependent on players, particularly foreign players, to provide a short-term solution. This can be seen in season 2020/21, where it has already been agreed that there is no relegation – in this timeframe the number of visas for foreign players granted is less than a third of the number granted in previous seasons. This has resulted in academy players having more match involvements and more game time, with academy players having the highest average minutes per appearance compared to the last three seasons.
Benefits for the Championship Clubs
In order to be able to achieve promotion a Championship club would require a multi-million-pound investment. There are a small number of Championship clubs with aspirations to play in the Premiership and more that don’t necessarily share that ambition.
The proposals mean a further season of stability for the Championship clubs with no relegation in 2020/21 and 2021/22. This will allow clubs to have more certainty and the opportunity to encourage long-term strategic planning, including for those with specific ambitions for promotion.
The RFU and PRL will commit to retaining current funding levels to the Championship until the end of the PGA in 2023/24, providing more financial certainty to the clubs.
The RFU will work with the Championship clubs to review the format of the league and competition with the intention of developing a better model that can become more sustainable while still allowing clubs the opportunity to aspire to promotion to the Premiership should they wish to. A working group will consider opportunities and will report back to RFU Council by January 2022.
The Championship will still be a pathway for players, coaches and match officials but club aspirations don’t have to be interlinked; players can progress to their potential without the specific need for their club to be promoted.
Around half of the EPS squad in January 2021 had previously played for a Championship club (23 players), although of these players only one was not also registered with a RFU/Premiership academy during their time in the Championship.
Benefits for England Rugby
The proposals provide additional preparation time and more stability in the calendar for England men’s players in lead up to Rugby World Cup 2023 and a coherent season structure to allow for optimal preparation time for the RWC.
The proposals will facilitate and support strong club and country relationships, provide better player development opportunities for EQPs and ensures the EQP scheme and its importance. It will also provide stability in order to help define the role and purpose of the Greene King IPA Championship and other leagues such as National One and BUCS. As the Premiership expands in size, this is likely to result in a greater number of National One clubs being promoted at the end of season 2021/22, which will also lessen the impact of relegation as a result of the introduction of the Future Competitions Structure. The structure will ensure a coherent pathway to develop players for the Premiership and England.
Benefits for the Community Game and Fans
Providing a period of greater stability for Gallagher Premiership and Greene King IPA Championship Clubs, together with growing England talent will help to increase the fan base for the game, and therefore revenues to be invested in the wider game as well as encouraging increased participation in community rugby.
The philosophy of minimum criteria is something that might be applied at appropriate levels within the community game in order to best balance the needs of clubs with the quality of experience for players and other participants and would need to be reviewed by RFU Council.
Rugby Fan Research
To understand fan attitudes to the proposals, the RFU conducted research among rugby fans** and found:
- Close to two thirds (65%) of rugby union fans in England supported the proposals, five times more than the proportion against (13%). A further 22% of fans were unsure.
When asked why they support the proposals, fans gave the following reasons (they could select all that applied):
- To support England Rugby and the development of its international players 67%
- Protect the future of Premiership clubs 51%
- To help grow the game of rugby in England 47%
- Protect the future of RFU Championship clubs 23%