Source: Harlequins

The Future of the Allianz Premier 15s – Part 2021

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News of future plans for the men’s Premiership renews thoughts about possible adjustments to the AP 15s.

The Gallagher Prem is to be extended to 13 then 14 clubs; in each of the coming two seasons one club will be allowed up from the Championship. Thereafter promotion-relegation will kick in, restricted to one-up, one-down. In this way Jeff Blackett, the RFU President, hopes to satisfy all parties. One group has been especially vocal, those against the removal of pro-rel, as desired by several elite clubs.

One crucial effect of the Prem’s decision is to lengthen the season. How that is to be achieved is hard to discern; there is mounting concern over player-welfare. International players are most at risk; their season is carefully monitored. When it comes to vital games, clubs must not be tempted to invite a leading player to overlook a minor niggle to ensure the desired result.

And the Women’s League

The men’s and women’s leagues differ markedly. Most obvious is the overwhelming presence of amateurs in the AP 15s. The money expended on the two operations is as wide as could be.

If the AP 15s is to be extended, problems loom.

First, if every club that wanted to join was allowed in – that is a string of Premiership clubs like Bath, Leicester, London Irish, Newcastle and Northampton, plus the ambitious Ealing Trailfinders – the season could last a calendar year.

If the league was extended by one or two only – the most likely move – the season would still be worryingly long. And what would happen to the unsuccessful clubs? Would the RFU operate a third three-year-block of no change 2023-6?

Third, meaningful promotion-relegation could only become a reality if and when the Championship (Division Two, if you like) consisted largely of clubs similarly funded to the elite ten. And even there, the money at club treasurers’ disposal varies vastly.

Ambitious clubs hoping to catch the RFU’s eye for admission would be much less happy with the one-up, one-down arrangement of the Gallagher Prem; it could so easily mean an extended stay at the lower level. But what they all desire would mean a top division of around sixteen clubs, hardly a workable proposition – unless it rejected the home-and-away arrangement.

The Task ahead

Then again, clubs only now setting up a women’s section should have no illusions about how hard it will be to reach the necessary standards. Even a club like Bath with a ready-made neighbouring club on hand, Bath Ladies, would need to seek other player-resources to have a chance of success. The AP 15s is not a glorified academy, where promising players can find their feet. The proof comes with the two great academies that are already prominent members, Loughborough Lightning and Gloucester-Hartpury. Both have produced untold numbers of internationals, but both have needed to sign up top players from elsewhere. And neither has yet proved strong enough to reach a play-off final.

One ready source of the right material lies overseas. That was Exeter Chiefs’ policy. It’s open to question how many more overseas players of the required standard would want to follow that example. Could the day ever dawn when a limit is applied to the number of non-English qualified players attached to a club?

If yet more Celtic players were invited into the AP 15s, that would ignore the vital need of the IRFU, SRU and WRU to establish well funded competitions in their own lands. We still await news of the findings of the committee looking into the future of women’s rugby in Wales.

I ignore the added possibility of Celtic clubs joining the AP 15s.

No decision on a global calendar will be taken before 2024, so difficult is it to reach a pattern that satisfies all parties. In England women’s clubs might be perfectly happy with a season stretching from September to April or May, with the Six Nations placed at the end, dovetailing in with the AP 15s play-off finals. But those nine months are not long enough to allow all those would-be applicants to take their seat at the table.

It will be fascinating to see how they go about acquiring the player strength needed to survive at the top. They may well be able to show the necessary Minimum Operating Standards, the other great requirement for admission. It is on the field of play where they face the greatest challenge.