There were crazy scenes in France over the weekend as Steffon Armitage slotted the kick that won Biarritz a penalty shoot-out against Bayonne to earn the final spot in next season’s Top14. Biarritz had finished 3ʳᵈ in Pro D2, but made it through the playoffs (which include the top 6 teams, with the top 2 getting byes in the first round) to the final, where they lost to table-topping Perpignan.
Meanwhile over in England, RFU Championship table-toppers Ealing Trailfinders were hammered 0-60 at home in the home leg of the final against Premiership cheaters Saracens, who were fielding a team chock-full of internationals. Saracens are now just 80 minutes away from being welcomed back into the Premiership, despite rules on promotion stating that a team needs to be able to show proof that they have been within the salary cap for the past 2 seasons (which they haven’t) in order to be promoted. Get ready for a season of BT peddling the “revenge tour” or “redemption tour” narratives for all of their matches.
The final was just a formality anyway, as Ealing had just found out that Premiership Rugby had denied them the opportunity to be promoted as they failed to provide proof before a set deadline that they had a home ground that met requirements. Of course, it’s never that simple though, as Ealing knew their home ground wasn’t sufficient so arranged a ground share for a suitable stadium, but were awaiting confirmation from Premiership Rugby as to the finding they would receive as a non-shareholder in the Premiership. In a league where the majority of teams are being forced to go semi-pro due to the lack of funding from the RFU, it is already hard enough for a team to rise up and challenge the relegated Premiership team (who get a parachute payment to help them) for a spot in the top flight without all the extra red tape and efforts against them from Premiership Rugby.
This is not sustainable in the long term, and it is a clear ploy to introduce a long-term ringfencing of the Premiership sooner rather than later (this is already happening this season due to the impact of COVID-19 on the table). Meanwhile, talent continues to leave these shores to go to France, where both the Top14 an Pro D2 are fully professional and a third tier of professional rugby is soon to come into effect. Only with such a model can a top-flight team have any realistic chance of holding onto its top players when being relegated, while the depth in the quality of player base grows as teams face tougher tests on a weekly basis.
The Premiership may be one of the best rugby leagues in the world, but by the RFU letting them have their own way and not sufficiently supporting the other leagues, the chance of another fairytale story like that of Exeter looks like nothing more than a work of fiction…