Premiership Rugby

England's Premiership Should Learn These Key Lessons From The French Top 14

England's Premiership Should Learn These Key Lessons From The French Top 14

The English Premiership is set to undergo drastic changes to ensure long-term stability, should English Rugby take lessons from France's Top 14.

Aug 8, 2023
England's Premiership Should Learn These Key Lessons From The French Top 14

The past year has put the Premiership on its knees. From the collapse of the Worcester Warriors, Wasps and London Irish, to the smattering of empty seats at the Premiership final, it’s been a torrid period for the English topflight.

The struggle to retain supporter attention is being felt across the sport, and the situation in England is not being helped by the introduction of new tackle laws at grassroots level. But, even with these challenges, other leagues are thriving.

The URC quickly has cultivated a strong following in various nations, while the Top 14 continues to shine the brightest, filling the Stade de France for the final between Toulouse and La Rochelle.

The Premiership could learn a thing or two from the French model and work to replicate its successes. 

One of the central reasons for the Top 14’s popularity is the implementation of relegation and promotion.

Each season, at least one team drops down to the Pro D2 to be replaced by the winner of the second division. Then, there’s a playoff between the second-from-the-bottom finisher of the Top 14 and the second-place finisher in the Pro D2.

The system creates a much more competitive atmosphere and gives teams across the top league something to play for, while incentivizing investment in Pro D2 teams.

The value of this was perfectly encapsulated by the meteoric rise of La Rochelle. In the last 10 years, the Maritimes have secured promotion to the top division, reached two Top 14 finals and won two successive Champions Cups.

That stunning story of success would not have been possible if the Top 14 was a closed-off league.

Of course, there was a time not too long ago when promotion existed in the English system. Indeed, it was Saracens which last made the jump between leagues, after the team was forced into relegation following breaches of the salary cap.

There are murmurings that promotion and relegation will make a return in 2025, but even if this turns out to be true, there’s still a huge caveat underlining it.

At the moment, teams in the Championship have to apply at the start of the season to prove their eligibility to compete in the Premiership. This process includes having a stadium capacity of at least 10,000, which is a big ask for some clubs.

Only a few pass this criteria, which is why the most recent Championship winners – Ealing Trailfinders and Jersey Reds – were barred from promotion.

With all the talk now about the need to grow rugby, preventing promotion on the grounds of stadium capacity feels like a particularly short-sighted approach.

If the RFU is intent on making rugby a game beloved by all, then instilling a viable Championship, which feeds into leagues above and below, is key to this.

At the moment, the Premiership is dominated by teams in the south of the country. The Newcastle Falcons and Sale Sharks are the only true northern clubs in the league, meaning a huge rugby-loving demographic just doesn't have a local team it can flock to watch in the top flight week on week.

However, there are more northern entities in the Championship, such as Doncaster Knights and Caldy. If those sides were given open-door access to the Premiership, then there would be more northern rivalries for fans to watch.

This is a really important facet on which governing bodies need to focus. Regional rivalries are the bedrock of sports. They get fans the most excited, leading to noisier stadiums, which spurs on the players.

That environment is exactly what rugby needs to grow.

It would encourage more fans to watch games on TV or in person, boosting the revenues of each club. And, crucially, if clubs can bring in more money, we might buck the trend of teams folding under financial strain.

That doesn’t mean the Premiership needs to get bigger. It can stick to its current 10 team structure, but with relegation back in the fray, more clubs will enter the conversation. And more teams means more fans, and having more fans never is a bad thing.

Admittedly, steps have been taken to integrate the top two English leagues in the upcoming season, with all Championship sides set to appear in the Premiership Rugby Cup from September. 

The cup competition is notorious for having tiny audiences, but if that changes this season, it will be self-evident that integrating English leagues increases fan interest.

There’s a lot of scope for growth within the sport, and it may just be that the re-introduction of relegation is the key to unlocking it all.