I’ve been so preoccupied with Experimental Law Variations and referees recently it’s been some time since I had a proper moan about the impasse concerning the First Division.
As you may recall most of the summer was spent in the expectation that, as in recent seasons, there would be two teams relegated into National Two and two promoted in their stead.
But as is rugby’s way, as the season approached so too the waters muddied and speculation over the Rugby Football Union’s intentions intensified.
Rumours began to abound about the likelihood that anything up to five teams could lose their National One status this season as the governing body flexes its muscle in a bid to bring level two into numerical line with level one.
FDR Ltd released a statement the day before the campaign kicked off in which is claimed the status quo stood but contained the rather important rider – ‘Unless the RFU decides otherwise’.
Well a week later the RFU, in the shape of chairman of the management board Martyn Thomas, appeared to do just that. For the first time Thomas went on the record by confirming his desire for a 12-team First Division.
The sport, and by extension the union, he said, cannot maintain any more than 24 full time clubs.
Clearly some of those in danger of slipping through the trap-door and back into the ‘community game’ as it is rather patronisingly termed, are not happy.
Indeed even if they successfully negotiate the leap into proper professional rugby there is a widespread feeling more central funding is required to compensate for the loss of fixtures.
Initially the RFU offered an extra £30-40,000 a year, somewhere around the £220,000 mark, although I understand that is now up to somewhere well over £300,000 in total.
But amongst all this haggling everyone seems to be ignoring the rather large elephant sat squarely in the room. If these clubs are so worried about losing the slightly less than vast income derived from playing Otley home and away and are desperate for an increase in central funding, does the game really have the capacity for these extra full time teams?
Twenty-four, you see, is a rather arbitrary number based purely on the shape of the current Premiership.
There’s nothing set in stone about the top flight being 12 teams, indeed it wasn’t so long ago it was more and one could quite easily argue should be increased again.
What then? A 14-strong Premiership and another 14 in a newly-styled Premiership 2? Pardon me for pointing out that’s 28 teams in the top two divisions. Sound familiar?
As things stand there are 12 full time teams at level one and – depending on what you mean by full time, another eight at level two. That’s not counting Moseley whose ‘young professionals’ coach in addition to training. Full time or not full time? That is the question.
But for some incomprehensible reason the union feels the need to tinker yet again and so for the first time since the last time – about two years ago, the First Division season ebbs away without anyone actually knowing what they are playing for.
Sure Exeter and Leeds will go hammer and tongs at the top of the table but is 12th place a comfortable lower half finish or a relegation spot. Perhaps it earns the occupant a ‘money-spinning’ play-off with the winner of National Two.
A decision is hoped for next month. FDR are meeting on Wednesday October 22 where they will have their last chance to affect RFU thinking on the matter. The union’s management board meeting in November is expected to produce a final answer.
But hark, what’s this I hear? Rumblings of a breakaway among FDR clubs. Peeved at the mushroom treatment some of the more militant members of FDR are rumoured to be considering going it alone.
Interesting one that one because are these the same clubs who are trying to tell the governing body they need a bigger union grant? You couldn’t make it up. Perhaps I’ll get back to ELVs and referees next week, they seem so much more fathomable.