Relegation provided the drama, but was the Premiership actually at its best this season?
There are three camps when it comes to the Premiership Rugby relegation debate, roughly split 60%/20%/20%. Those directly opposed to ringfencing, those championing the shutting of the trap door and those who dip in and out of either camp throughout various parts of the season.
We would all like to think we belong in one of the first two camps. In possession absolute clarity of thought and unwavering dedication to our beliefs, whether it be pro or anti-ringfencing. But like the ever-growing final 20%, I find myself dipping in and out of my stance that ringfencing the Premiership and dashing relegation is the absolute way forward for English rugby.
While I most often find myself in the corner marked ‘ringfercers’, the closely fought relegation battle this season has gifted me much food for thought. Currently, however, I find myself back in the ringfencers corner after a notable period sat atop the ropes, flirting with the pro-relegation camp.
My once steadfast opinion that relegation hinders a brand of open, skill-based rugby and impedes the game time afforded aspiring youth has certainly been offset by the sheer captivation and drama of the bottom-of-the-table battle this year. Many a fixture involving Newcastle Falcons, Leicester Tigers and Worcester Warriors this season would have been viewed with varying degrees of disinterest, branded as a ‘nothing game’ had the threat of ‘The Drop’ not loomed so ominously below. But sitting back, I wonder, while this season has been one of the most dramatic in recent memory at the lower end of the table, with up to half the league narrowly escaping relegation’s clutches at one time or another, it feels like the quality of the rugby itself has been well below average.
Along with the 2017/18 season, this year’s 18/19 edition of the Premiership doesn’t feel like it lived up to the drama touted across social media and article headlines alike when it came down to the on-field product; the actual rugby itself.
This brings about the question of what exactly constitutes a successful season of Premiership rugby as far as being a product of entertainment is concerned. For example, a season of tight arm-wrestles resulting in minimal thrill or frill when ball is in hand will provide us with plenty to talk about as far as relegation and Champions Cup qualification and playoff contention is concerned, but would that really capture our attentions from whisle to whistle?
Of course, it’s not to say this season has been wholly without its ornamentation. Northampton Saints, Harlequins and Bristol Bears, in particular, have provided us with some sumptuous rugby. While Exeter Chiefs’ soon-to-depart Puma fullback Santiago Cordero has sprinkled an otherworldly degree of evasive footwork. These feel like the exceptions to and not the rule itself over the last two years.
Have we been blinded to the drop in quality by the spectacle of the relegation battle? What is more important, the drama of which side might be forced to drop from the top level of English rugby or the actual rugby itself? It’s just my opinion, but my answers are ‘yes’ and ‘the latter’. And indeed the first question does bring to mind a potential factor in the lack of English club representation in the Champions Cup playoffs.
Circling back to the ringfencing debate, it seems to me that the proposition of relegation standing as an indispensable pillar of Premiership Rugby - as a product of sporting entertainment - is somewhat weakened when placed under closer scrutiny, and has distracted many from the drop in quality in one of the world's leading leagues.
Relegation saw there was no shortage of attention to the lower end of the league, but the standard of rugby on Premiership fields is far from being as rosy as many seem to suggest following the bottom of the table tussle.