Relegation has to be sacrosanct

For London Irish the time is nigh. The theme of whether relegation is a positive or not has been raised far less than usual this season, one suspects in part because goings on at the other end of the table have been more interesting than usual.

Yet the irritation at the way the potential promoted club has to undergo a strict and lengthy facility audit at the same time as all the other Premiership clubs are busying themselves with squad-strengthening is still evident.

Of the four clubs taking part in the championship play-offs only Bedford are not interested in redeveloping or upgrading their Goldington Road ground. There are some sound developmental arguments for the audit, but this should be performed at the start of the year, not at the business end of the season, thus at least allowing a fairer playing field for the new elite team, rather than from a sometime indiscriminate moment in June when all the available playing talent has already been snapped up.

 

It is going to be difficult next season for most of the clubs in the Championship, but rather than going on about the drawbacks of a system that allows those outside the elite to dream, should not attention be paid to investing some of the extra money pouring into the top flight  into making the Championship fit for the purpose of a principle that is enshrined in the agreement between Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Football Union. A new improved financial deal between the two parties will shortly be unveiled but more needs to be done to boost the Championship, many of whose clubs are right up against it financially.

 

One look at the faces of the London Irish players at the final whistle against Harlequins on Saturday was reason enough to tell you why promotion and relegation is a good thing; shattered, distraught, spent. Those raw, pained emotions of course are why we all keep coming back. It is not cruel or ghoulish to want to bear witness to such trials and tribulations. It is the essence of sport- that emotion-shredding ride along the spectrum that runs from glory to despair, from joy to sorrow, from triumph to failure. If you dismantle one by ring-fencing the Premiership, then you dilute the other one two.  The sense of desolation felt by the Exiles on Saturday evening is the mirror image of jubilation that will be the preserve of one of the high-flying Premiership elite at Twickenham at the end of this month. Do away with one and you compromise the other.

 

The sanctity of promotion and relegation must be upheld. That is not to say that the concept ought not to be under constant review. It is only right  that the play-off system in the Championship be scrutinised, There are commercial imperatives in play, both in the Championship and the Premiership, but play-offs in the elite league have validity because sides are weakened, and the integrity of the competition distorted, because so many players are absent during the international windows.

There is no such justification in the Championship. First-past-the-post is the only way to do that bit of business.

 

 

 

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

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Is New Jersey Rugby’s Promised Land?

It’s probably fair to say opinions varied as to the success of the opening night of Premiership Rugby in the United States last weekend. For the record Saracens beat London Irish 26-16 but the actual result, which kept Sarries on top of the Premiership pile, and the Exiles rooted even more firmly to the bottom, seemed to be lost in the general hoopla.
Mark McCafferty, Premiership Rugby’s chief executive, like all good promoters, employed a few embellishments and exaggerations to label the venture a roaring success. He called it a “great match”, which it was certainly not, and even the official attendance of 14,811, seemed to this television viewer, a few thousand ahead of reality judging by the number of empty seats.
McCafferty maintained that “It’s a start. I think everybody knows how huge a market the US is and how huge a sports market it is.”
This was the first in a three –year agreement to stage matches at the Red Bull Arena in New Jersey, though whether London Irish are involved in the fixture next year remains to be seen, as they sit eight points adrift of safety with only six games to play.

Admittedly, the timing could have been better. It was not just that this historic occasion clashed with a moderately interesting fixture between England and Wales. The call last week by 70 “experts” for tackling to be outlawed in schools attracted plenty of debate and inevitable ridicule. But what cannot be so quickly brushed aside is the increasing number of so-called “soccer moms” in the States, parents afraid of the potential physical harm to Bradley junior from their playing American football. No doubt one of the most popular questions asked of the Premiership visitors was “Where are your helmets guys?”

Amid the usual rejoinders about American football tacklers leading with their heads with the resultant extra potential for concussions, rugby’s rulers would do well not to sound so complacent and gung ho. There are a few key areas rugby union needs to get right before it can hope to sell itself compellingly to a market already familiar with big blokes running into each other. The most obvious are the types of high hit which such players as Manu Tuilagi have made their stock-in-trade.
The England player James Haskell pointed out that teaching young kids the correct tackling technique at the right age is absolutely fundamental. And herein surely lies the key to exporting rugby union to the US. Back in the day the round ball game was introduced on premise of the likes of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer looking for a pension. Eventually, the professional game withered and died. There was a recognition that the sport would only take root if the native younger generation took it up at school level, and this tied in nicely with the “soccer mum” phenomenon. So would a new sport built around physical content encourage those same soccer moms to steer Bradley junior towards that muscular new sport on the block?

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

Rugby’s coming to America

It appears the Aviva Premiership is set to break new ground with the staging of a game overseas next season. It is rumoured London Irish are poised to take their traditional St. Patricks Day game to New York as part of a three-year deal between Premiership Rugby and USA Rugby designed to boost the profile of the sport on both sides of the Atlantic.

Super Rugby has of course already ventured down this route, although in different circumstances, with the Crusaders tackling the Sharks at Twickenham back in 2011 in the wake of the Christchurch earthquake. A crowd of 35,000 were lured to HQ that day and Irish will no doubt hope to tap into the Irish-American community for the New York fixture, but talk of an 80,000 sell-out at a venue like MetLife Stadium appears a bit fanciful.

It is all very exciting but what about the Exiles’ fans? Crowds were once again disappointing at Irish’s 24,000-seater Madejski Stadium home last season, with the attendance exceeding 8,000 just four times in the league – including the highly popular St Patricks Day game.

The All Blacks piqued interest within the sporting US public, as illustrated by the huge crowd at Chicago’s Soldier Field for last November’s game against the Eagles, but London Irish and whoever their scheduled opposition will not be such as easy sell.

Would the money and effort not be better spent in attracting new fans on Premiership Rugby’s doorstep, and who might continue to support the team long after the proposed game in New York? The Premiership final may continue to attract the masses to Twickenham but that is not reflected week in, week out at many Premiership grounds where the sport does not appear to matter enough to enough people.
Those fans that regularly rattle around the Madejski and are treated to an under-performing side are “rewarded” with the chance to fork out for what will not be a cheap jaunt across the Pond.
But with Saracens and Leicester also heading Stateside in the off-season, and probably more regular season games poised to be switched, it is something fans should get used to –or at least start saving for.

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk