Three of the Championship’s play-off semi-finalists have passed the minimum standards criteria needed to gain access to the Aviva Premiership, but Bedford Blues did not even apply for an audit.
It means that in the very likely event one of Bristol, Yorkshire Carnegie or Doncaster win the Championship title, Reading-based London Irish or Newcastle Falcons will be relegated to the Championship.
However, should Bedford defy the odds and beat their opponents in the play-off final then they would be unable to move up to the top division and either Premiership side would be able to keep their coveted place in England’s most prestigious domestic league.
The minimum standards have caused controversy in the past after former Championship winners London Welsh successfully appealed over the RFU decision not to promote them based on the strict criteria.
The appeal panel, chaired by James Dingemans QC, said the club had not met the requirements of primacy of tenure for their stadium. However, “it upheld the club’s assertion that they gave rise to an unjustified distortion of competition “contrary to EU and UK competition law” (via The Daily Telegraph).
The ‘primacy of tenure’ criterion had angered many Championship clubs previously because existing Premiership clubs such as London Irish, Saracens, Sale and Wasps have in the past not themselves possessed it with regards to the stadiums they used.
Since then Wasps have relocated to the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, which they now legally own. However, Sale have moved in with rugby league side Salford Red Devils at their AJ Bell Stadium, and Saracens have redeveloped a stadium built on land owned by Barnet Council.
As a result of Welsh’s appeal, the rules over primacy of tenure were changed from the 2013/2014 season. Those changes can be viewed in detail here.
If Irish are relegated, an interesting scenario could arise should they succeed in winning the Championship next season. Would they meet the Premiership’s minimum standards criteria should this happen? London Irish have played their Premiership home games at Reading Football Club’s Madejski Stadium since 1998. Could Irish end up being the victims of a glass ceiling like London Welsh?
It’s easy enough to throw accusations at both the RFU and Premiership Rugby of attempting to engineer a ‘closed shop’ at the top of the English domestic game, without needing to resort to ‘ringfencing’ the Premiership. Yet at the same time the problem of clubs not having their own stadiums has long been an issue in terms of the financial stability and durability of those teams. Pivotally though, it is vitally important that the same rules should apply to all clubs and not just those seeking promotion.
All eyes will now turn to the Championship play-offs, with London Irish’s dedicated supporters hoping Bedford can pull off a miracle.
However, with a squad in need of rebuilding, a coaching team yet to prove its worth and a very uncertain future down the line, London Irish may face the most challenging times of their proud 118-year history.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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