This is the 23rd season of professional rugby, and it is the 23rd edition of the relegation debate. No, it’s the 24th. The first was the season before professionalism, the moratorium season, when all the millionaires insisted their investment to turn amateur operations into professional must come with a guarantee of participation when the whistle blew.
That is the only year the anti-relegation argument won. Saracens, the old amateur Saracens who welcomed bigger rivals to their muddy corner of a park in Cockfosters and tried to mug them, failed in that directive one time too many. The next season’s star-laden professional outfit, due to take to a grassier field with seats and everything, were to be relegated. Over Nigel Wray’s empty wallet…
Saracens won the debate then and have come to symbolise the vast investment in the Premiership since, the transformation from amateur to professional, and the reason the Premiership want to seal themselves off from the rest of rugby. If you’d invested all that money you’d want it protected too.
It’s the sort of cold business argument that enrages those who feel sport, whether amateur or professional, should be about romance, about the dream. They have a point, but the time for their argument was earlier even than 24 years ago. As soon as rugby turned professional, the romance argument was doomed.
This is how professional sport works. Forget football, which is a freak, the only global game. Look instead at the American sports, look at the Australian, look even at other professional leagues in rugby, bar the French. They all recognise the need to ring-fence and nurture.
The CVC deal, meanwhile, is back on. This is about to take the argument even further away from the romantics. The latest whispers are that the private equity firm have offered £240m for a 27% stake in the Premiership. Which means they value the Premiership at roughly £900m. Which means, theoretically, each of the 13 shareholding clubs (including London Irish) is worth £70m.
Suddenly, Wray’s investment of more than £40m doesn’t look quite the indulgence any more. More to the point, the gap between what Saracens are and were, which is roughly the gap between the Premiership and everyone else now, is vast. In 1995, an independent accountant valued Saracens at £100,000.
The Premiership will become ring-fenced. Maybe not this season, but it will happen, even if they have to break from the RFU to do it. Yes, it’s an intriguing relegation battle. (Can’t remember the last one, by the way, although 2005 was good.) But, genuinely, Leicester or Bath could go down. Ealing could go up. That prospect appals everyone in the Premiership, not just in Leicester or Bath. Rightly so.
The Premiership has moved so far from the rest of English rugby – and that’s before CVC have sunk their teeth into it. Clinging on to relegation is clinging on to amateurism. Some of us never wanted rugby to turn pro. But it has. And this is how it works.
Michael Aylwin’s novel about the future of sport, Ivon, is out now https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ivon-Michael-Aylwin/dp/1910453463