The counties north of Manchester account for nearly a quarter of the landmass of England and nearly a sixth of the population. Next season there will be no Premiership rugby among them.
It is easy to become blasé about the loss of Newcastle to the Premiership, rationalising it away with the odd ‘they couldn’t quite close out the tight ones’ and/or ‘they’ll be back in 2020’. The truth is, their loss is a terrible blow to English rugby, even if it is only for one season. Strategically, it is a disaster for a sport trying to expand beyond the usual regions.
St James’ Park is said to be all but a sell-out for Saturday’s Champions Cup final. Imagine the casual fans from the area turning up on spec.
‘This is great,’ they might think, ‘where can I get me some of this next season?’
London Irish will replace the Falcons. Take a look at the squad they are putting together, and it is plain to see there will be little or no drop-off in the quality of rugby on offer next season. And there ought to be a demographic to tap into in the Thames Valley, however much Irish have struggled to find it over the past 20 years. Waisake Naholo et al will help on that front – and then they’ll either be relegated or move to west London, where Wasps, Richmond, London Scottish, London Welsh and even Irish themselves have all conspicuously failed to make it work, because Harlequins are already there.
And just imagine if Irish stay up and it’s not Newcastle who replace whoever goes down but Ealing. That would be three clubs in west London, where all evidence suggests there is room for only one, and a gaping hole north of Manchester.
Then just imagine if whoever goes down is Sale. Or Leicester. It could happen. Leicester (average gate, 20,000) replaced by Ealing (1,000, second lowest in the Championship). How confident and established a professional sport would need to be to countenance that prospect. Rugby, it should be obvious, is not that sport.
This is a simple question of strategy. There can be no joined-up thinking for as long as individual clubs are vulnerable to the whims of what happens on the pitch and are thus driven at an administrative level by the short-term directive to avoid the worst of them. Losses spiral out of control, regions become neglected or over-represented, clubs turn this way and that in the desperation just to survive.
Newcastle v Leicester that Friday night a couple of weeks back made for compelling viewing. On the back of it, voice after voice proclaimed the sanctity of relegation. Without it, they might not have bothered watching.
It’s great so many were entertained by that match. We can only hope that makes worthwhile the lost jobs, the lost opportunities, the money, the time and the general chaos of a competition whose structures make strategic thinking impossible, even if anyone were capable of it.