Threat of strike may force English Premiership to 10 teams
Manu Tuilagi is in the frame to make his Leicester comeback after seeing witch doctor
Gareth Steenson and Jack Yeandle of Exeter Chiefs raise the Premiership trophy at Twickenham last May. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Reducing the English Premiership to 10 teams is one of a host of ideas being floated as a potential solution to the continuing dispute over the length of the domestic season, which has led to the threat of a player strike.
It is understood the proposal also includes the possibility of a 10-team Championship coming under the jurisdiction of Premiership Rugby Limited – the second tier is currently run by the Rugby Football Union – and, in theory, a more even distribution of funds across the two divisions.
Cutting two teams from the Premiership is just one of a number of suggestions for restructuring the domestic game – the main focus at Wednesday’s Professional Game Board meeting. The proposals come amid a row over the Premiership’s plans to extend its season to 10 months as part of the new-look global calendar, which will apply from 2020.
A number of high-profile Premiership players, including Billy Vunipola, have expressed concerns there are currently too many matches in the calendar, with strike action raised as a possibility. A 10-team Premiership would, however, reduce the number of matches played and likely reduce the number of weekends where Premiership matches clash with internationals, which is the clubs’ major concern.
This month Saracens have lost four matches in a row for the first time since 2010, with Owen Farrell, Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje, Jamie George, George Kruis, Alex Lozowski and Nick Isiekwe away with England for all or some of the autumn international series.
Ring-fencing the Premiership has also been raised as a solution, though to do so with 12 teams is difficult because some of its shares are held by clubs in the Championship. Proposals for a 13- or 14-team Premiership have also been raised but that would only increase fears over player welfare. Reducing the Premiership to 10 teams would not at first seem an attractive proposal to the shareholders either but it is thought that a better distribution of finances, a significantly more competitive second tier and a two up, two down promotion/relegation system would help to allay fears.
It would also suit the Championship clubs who have promotion aspirations but fear the Premiership is already, in effect, ring-fenced with the relegated team from the top flight at a huge advantage to bounce straight back up, as Bristol are expected to do this season and as London Irish did last term.
The PGB meeting is expected to be lively, with the salary cap, player wages, the glut of injuries suffered in the early months of the season and the A League all currently contentious issues. A number of A League matches have been postponed this season while a host of clubs have had to call on guest players to fill teams. The A League was expanded at the start of the season from five to 10 matches for each side and the Premiership wants it to increase further to 22 – a response to Nigel Melville’s “buddying plan”, designed to partner top-flight clubs with second- and third-tier teams and increase the number of dual registered players between them.
With injuries taking hold, however, the Premiership clubs have seen their squads stretched even further because wage demands are rising higher than the salary cap – which is due to be frozen for the next two seasons – and that, in turn, has led to a shrinking of squads, accelerating calls to remodel the current structure in England.
Meanwhile Manu Tuilagi is in the frame to make his Leicester comeback on Saturday, having recovered from the knee injury he sustained on the opening weekend of the season. Tuilagi was initially due back later this month following knee surgery but recently revealed he had visited a witch doctor in Samoa in an attempt to cure his long-running injury problems. The 26-year-old has not started a Test for England since June 2014.