By Chris Foy
English rugby union is facing the spectre of further promotion and relegation chaos, as Championship clubs have warned that they will follow the lead of London Welsh by launching a legal challenge if they are barred from the Aviva Premiership.
At the end of last season, the Exiles won the second-tier title by beating Cornish Pirates in the Championship play-offs, having learned that they did not satisfy the controversial Minimum Standards Criteria for entry into the top division. However, London Welsh sought legal advice, and on appeal they were belatedly approved for promotion.
This season, Newcastle Falcons are clear at the top of the Championship and would satisfy the criteria, but the play-off system – involving home-and-away semi-finals and final – means their return to the Premiership is by no means a foregone conclusion.
Prior to the start of the campaign, the Rugby Football Union’s professional rugby director, Rob Andrew, insisted that the MSC would have to be revised so as to provide clarity for clubs and guard against future legal challenges.
However, while minor amendments have been made, Championship clubs are unhappy with the outcome and are ready to take legal action if Newcastle do not clinch the title and avert a fresh crisis.
“The Championship view is that the Minimum Standards don’t exist anymore because Welsh successfully challenged the document, and our legal people support that position,” Geoff Irvine, chairman of Bedford Blues and also the body representing the division’s clubs, told the Daily Mail.
Plymouth Albion, as well as the Pirates, are current members of the Championship. Irvine added: “We have been sent revised Minimum Standards which only address the primacy of tenure issue really. So what I have done on behalf of the Championship clubs is tell the RFU and Premiership Rugby, ‘do what you want, but this could be challenged’.
“We have put them on notice. I took a statement to the last Professional Game Board in November, so that they have a formal record of the position of the Championship clubs.
“We’ve told them that we don’t believe in the Minimum Standards and will challenge them at the first available opportunity. If Newcastle win the title, then they will be off the hook for this season.”
Irvine’s own club are second in the Championship table, behind the unbeaten Falcons. The Bedford chairman outlined the Blues’ stance, adding: “At Bedford, we’re just trying to win each game and not look too far ahead for now. But if we get into that position [challenging for the title], then we would employ the lawyers and have a go at them.”
At the end of last season, the RFU was caught in the cross-fire as the shambles over Welsh’s off-and-on promotion tarnished the image of the game, but, in Irvine’s eyes, the union is sympathetic to the Championship clubs. The difficulty, he argues, has come from trying to convince PRL to alter the status quo.
“In fairness to the RFU, they at least said that these minor changes had to be made,” he said. “Premiership Rugby grudgingly accepted them but, if they had had their way, there would be no changes at all.
“PRL won’t agree to major changes until the current agreement runs out in three-and-a-half years.”