Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Rugby Returns II - Seasonal Chaos

Ben Cohen
Cohen in full flight at the 2003 World Cup
Today's rugby news feeds brought brought the news that Ben Cohen, one of the England's 2003 World Cup winners looks to have parted company, though perhaps not in the strict legal sense, with the club with whom he has spent his entire professional career, last year's relegation victims, Northampton Saints.

It's another blow to the Saints following on from last year's relegation and other events such as the loss of former England hooker, Steve Thompson to a neck injury which made playing on to dangerous option to consider.

It appears to be over a bit of a tiff about the Saint's captaincy, which is a bit of a shame as Cohen looked set to be one of the many over the years who have had a career long relationship with the club. At his best, even beyond what he did in an England shirt, he was once of the players you really liked seeing play, even in an opposition shirt, much as another Northampton great, Tim Rodber, was for me in an earlier generation.

Cohen was also the subject of one of my favourite Rugby stories. It may be apocryphal but it was told to me by a lifelong Saints fan, so it may also have a little more truth to it.

Allegedly one season his agent suggested a promotional calendar be published for Cohen's fans. This was duly produced featuring Cohen in all manner of action shots, breaking tackles and taking glory dives over the try line. Sales were actually rather disappointing, so on the advice of his agent he tried a different tack and went for the female market, appearing largely shirtless and oiled, much like the promotional pictures of the French team at the last world cup. Sales shot up the following season much to everyone's delight. The only down side was that he had to take a lot of ribbing from team mates when it was revealed that the proportion purchasers who were male had actually increased, and a surprisingly large proportion seemed to have little known affiliation with the Northampton or the club.

It will be a shame not to have the Saints in the Premiership this season. Franklin's Gardens has always been one of my favourite away venues to visit, even before the investment that gave them a modern purpose built rugby stadium. It's likely only to be a very temporary stint in National 1 though, with the bookies offering odds 1-4 on a return to the Premiership next season, versus 13-2 for nearest rivals Exeter Chiefs.

If this comes to pass then it will be yet an extension of a pattern seen in every season bar one since 2000 where the relegated team bounces straight back. Since the introduction of the current 12 team format only one other team has joined Rotherham in being unable to secure a premiership return.

This perpetual swapping of the same teams between the bottom of the premiership and the top of National 1 is incredibly wasteful. There are parachute payments for the relegated club, which will go some way to compensate for the financial damage of what will be, in all probability, just a single season out of the premiership, but in the end it all seems pretty pointless.

I don't agree with ring-fencing the Premiership, and ending promotion and relegation but I'm sure there must be a more efficient way to manage things. Unaware of, and therefore ignoring some of the political issues my proposal would be as follows.

Firstly, expand the Premiership back to its original professional size of 14 teams. There are clearly a core set of 13 teams which are capable of playing some sort of a relatively permanent part of the Premiership setup as things currently stand.

So why 14? Well I could see two scenarios emerging. Ideally I would love to see a team from the far South West, one of rugby union's strongholds, but still without Premiership representation, join the the current 13 Premiership regulars. Exeter are getting pretty consistent, but they are not quite there yet, but if they or another team from the region did make it and took the place for a season or so I'm sure the lift in support would make them able keep them up to the standard of the Premiership, and rugby union's geographical coverage would be much improved. If this did not happen, the worst that would happen is that a series of teams would probably vie for the chance for a glory season in the Premiership; a far more positive way of seeing it than the reverse perspective of the temporarily relegated Premiership team.

I could also envisage the type of 'Bottom of Premiership v Top of National 1' two-legged play-off to see if promotion and relegation takes place, that existed during certain seasons, reintroduced, to stabilise the Premiership without the complete barrier of ring fencing.

This proposal would add four games per season to each teams schedule, which is not ideal, in view of the accepted wisdom that players are playing too many games, but I also suggest a compensating element to the plan.

Basically, I would scrap the Anglo-Welsh cup. I've never met anyone, English or Welsh, who really cares about it, it's got a bizarre format, and in all honestly I can't even remember who won it last year. Anglo-welsh competition would still exist in the two European cups, just as it does between English and Scottish clubs, and English and Irish clubs. I know the revenue is important, especially to the Welsh Rugby Union, and I think, considering the financial power of the English game and the long term interests of the game, it is sensible for such financial support to continue. I would just prefer it was in the form of generous deals on European Cup or Six Nations TV money.

Scrapping the Anglo-Welsh cup would mean a loss of at least three fixtures for each English club almost making up for the additional Premiership fixtures, as well as offering the chance to simply the structure of the season into clear domestic, European and international phases.

Naturally though the chance of any such simple solution which would offer the clubs a chance to grow in security, with a simplified season of no significantly greater length, has a cat in hell's chance of getting anywhere in the politicised world of today's Rugby Union.

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