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Closing time

Michael Aylwin

In many ways, it is a great shame we have been denied the Gallagher Premiership final this season deserves. A boring old shootout between first and second is a bit conventional. How much more appropriate it would have been to see Bristol qualify on the grounds of pestilence. 

If Fortune had been paying attention, the Bears would surely have gone on to win. The only fitting conclusion to a season so obviously twisted and cursed as this one is to crown the first champions in the history of sport who are also beaten semi-finalists.

In many ways, it is a great shame we have been denied the Gallagher Premiership final this season deserves. A boring old shootout between first and second is a bit conventional. How much more appropriate it would have been to see Bristol qualify on the grounds of pestilence. 

If Fortune had been paying attention, the Bears would surely have gone on to win. The only fitting conclusion to a season so obviously twisted and cursed as this one is to crown the first champions in the history of sport who are also beaten semi-finalists.

Alas, fickle Fortune has been overruled for once, decorum reinstated. But Exeter and Bristol have already blazed a trail this season for English rugby – and the West Country – by bringing home the first English European Double since Wasps and Harlequins won the Heineken and Challenge Cups in 2004. 

Which makes for quite the beautiful story, given their status as clubs who have come up the hard way – if not through the leagues in Bristol’s case, at least through the revolving door between the Premiership and the Championship. Inevitably, this has been cited as clinching the argument in favour of the seamless pyramid. Look at the success of these two, that line runs; none of it would be possible without promotion and relegation. 

The contrary argument, though, is that the examples of Exeter and Bristol show precisely why promotion and relegation should be taken out of the hands of Fortune, which can throw up results on the field almost as perverse as that of a beaten semi-finalist becoming a champion. A competently structured league takes control of where and through whom it expands. Currently, such a contention must be caveated with all the usual warnings about Premier Rugby being put in control of anything, but the concept of a closed league that grows at its own pace and in directions of its choosing is sound and indeed standard practice around the sporting world. 

Ollie Devoto
Ollie Devoto celebrates Exeter’s Champions Cup win (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

The first misconception to burst is this idea that, in closing a league, you prevent others joining. In the 1950s, the NFL was a competition of 12 teams, 10 of them packed tightly into the north-east corner of the USA. In 1970, they merged with the much younger American Football League and grew at their own pace to form the 32 teams of today, spread evenly around the country. Major League Soccer has gone from 10 teams in 1996 to 26 now, with further expansion planned. In Australia, the 11 clubs of the Victoria Football League in the 1980s have grown into the 18 of the Australian Football League of today. All of them, as with the vast majority of major sporting competitions around the world, are closed leagues. 

Such expansion is not only possible within a regulated system, it is impossible without, when the randomness of a local millionaire’s pocket and of the results on the field throws up all manner of unlikely candidates – often with ruinous consequences for not only the candidates themselves but the credibility of the very sport. When properly regulated, a league can instead adopt a strategic and controlled approach to where and when it expands. Equally, those who want to join must demonstrate they have a plan beyond simply buying up enough decent players to win enough fixtures in any given season or seasons. 

The idea that Exeter’s story is that of a happy-go-lucky band of brothers, with nothing behind them but their talent and love for each other, needs to be debunked.

Ten years ago, Exeter clinched promotion through the convoluted Championship play-off system of the time, beating in the final, of all teams, Bristol, who had finished top of the league that season. Exeter had just built Sandy Park, financed by the sale of their previous ground to developers for £12million. Thus they had the sine qua non for any club hoping to make a success of the transition from Championship to Premiership, a stadium of their own capable of hosting top-flight rugby. They smacked of Worcester, that other club who came up through the system at the other end of the M5. 

As the Warriors will tell you, such infrastructure is no more than an entry-level requirement. Exeter chairman Tony Rowe himself was keen to point out in 2012, when London Welsh were embroiled in the debate about their worthiness or otherwise for the Premiership, that it takes years and millions of pounds of investment – and not just in the recruitment of a team – to get yourself up to speed. No one was more scathing of the London Welsh debacle than he. 

Tony Rowe
Tony Rowe was less than sympathetic to London Welsh’s foolhardy expansion (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

The idea that Exeter’s story is that of a happy-go-lucky band of brothers, with nothing behind them but their talent and love for each other, needs to be debunked, however strong those qualities in them may be. Without the rest of it, they would not now be on the brink of a European and domestic Double. 

Do not underestimate either, among ‘the rest of it’, their location at the gateway to the only region of England, the South-West, where rugby is indisputably king. If Premier Rugby had wanted to identify a site of potential for a new club, they could not have chosen much better than where Exeter happen to be. On every level, the Chiefs’ elevation to the top flight made sense, regardless of what happened on the field. That they turned out to have such an immaculate culture in the playing department as well has installed them for now at the top of the European game, but that is a bonus and it grows from ‘the rest of it’. 

Bristol’s tale should serve as a cautionary reminder to any newcomers considering the transition from Championship to Premiership that this is a treacherous leap for even the best resourced.

Then take a look at Bristol. Unlike Exeter and Worcester, they have not come up through the leagues but have always been among rugby royalty in England. They have even more going for them, a population getting on for a million where rugby is on a par with football, the hotbed of Wales just across the bridge, an owner who counts his fortune in the billions and a modern stadium more than fit for purpose. 

Tom Arscott
Bristol failed time and time again to reach the Premiership (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

And then look at how they have struggled to make it work. The owner and the stadium are relatively recent additions (although they have presided over one relegation at the first attempt and a few other frustrations), but that population and that culture have always been there, as has the all-important ‘P share’, though which Bristol have qualified as fully-fledged members of the Premiership, even when they weren’t actually in it. No one has bounced between the two leagues more than Bristol. If nothing else, their tale should serve as a cautionary reminder to any newcomers considering the transition from Championship to Premiership that this is a treacherous leap for even the best resourced. 

Rugby’s great misfortune is to have its two most dominant markets set in countries, England and France, where football’s way is considered the norm.

If all you have is a half-decent team, recruited by the money of a millionaire, who have put their faith in the fickleness of results on the field, you should not bother, nor should you be surprised if the other clubs in the Premiership don’t want you. The minimum-standards criteria, which received such a bad press during the London Welsh affair, are Premier Rugby’s haphazard way of vetting suitable candidates – and that principle, if not its execution, is perfectly sound for any sport with pretentions to coherent governance. Rugby is not so established that it can leave everything to chance. 

Football is the only sport in the world that can afford to do that with the culture of the seamless pyramid. Rugby’s great misfortune is to have its two most dominant markets set in countries, England and France, where football’s way is considered the norm. No other major sport – and no other rugby country – follows such a model, with its amateur and professional teams all lumped into the same continuous structure. Apart from the ruinous effect on the community game of clubs who throw money at a misguided charge up the leagues, instead of, say, at facilities and infrastructure, there can be no strategy in these systems, no broader view.

Ealing Trailfinders
Ealing Trailfinders are the next ambitious club to try and reach the Premiership (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images for Harlequins)

In England alone, there are vast swathes in the north of the country that are not represented by an elite union club – all the more so when Newcastle take a turn sitting out a season because the lottery of results have gone against them. Interestingly, France have recently taken steps to address a similar deficiency in the north of their country by attaching conditions on geographical location and size of market to any club claiming the second promotion spot from Federale 1 (their third tier) to Pro D2. In a closed league, these strategic decisions can be made at leisure and resources diverted to help any new club establish themselves in targeted areas, rather than, as currently in England, to be resented and disadvantaged if they do not bring anything worthwhile to the party. 

The stories of Exeter and Bristol, quite different in many ways, do not commend a system that allows just anyone to take a shot at the top by cobbling together a team. Rather, they underscore the importance of a project’s integrity and viability. These owe themselves to deliberate decisions and painstaking preparation. Far from precluding such ambition, a closed league actually empowers it. 

Fickle Fortune, as we know only too well from this most surreal of seasons, does not.

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