The impact of ring-fencing on the Gallagher Premiership

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We take a look at how matches may be affected by the decision to scrap relegation from the Gallagher Premiership.

As soon as Friday night’s games in the Gallagher Premiership had ended, fans of ring-fencing the top level of English rugby were quick to take to Twitter extolling the virtues of the decision made earlier in the day to scrap relegation.

Leaders Bristol Bears nearly came unstuck at bottom-of-the-table Gloucester, before snatching an 18-17 win, while Bath turned in their best performance of the season to defy the odds and win 27-22 at the AJ Bell Stadium.

Both games were eminently watchable and the ring-fencing proponents were quick to equate the entertainment on offer with the fact the teams near the bottom were now able to play without fear.

But as the verdict from Twickenham towers came only a few hours before kick-off, is it really feasible to think that Bath boss Stuart Hooper or Gloucester Director of Rugby George Skivington ripped up their game-plans and said, ‘right lads, there’s no relegation now, forget what we’ve done during the week, and give it a good lash’?

Of course, over time, this may happen, and we may see more young English players given a license to thrill. But I’m yet to be convinced that robbing the Gallagher Premiership season of a dramatic end, at the top and the bottom, is a positive move for anyone other than the ones whose jobs are at risk if the dreaded drop happens.

We’re only two matches into what could be the ‘new norm’ – with hints from the RFU that a moratorium may last for three to four years, not just one – but it’s still interesting to compare what happened on Friday night to the corresponding fixtures in 2018/19. 

The reason we have left out 2019/20 is both matches were played shortly after the season’s re-start, post-Covid when it was known Saracens were destined for relegation anyway. For the record, those games ended in a 37-22 win for Bath at Sale and a 33-24 win for Bristol at Gloucester.

The good news for the ring-fencers is that the matches the season before do not stand comparison to Friday night’s fare in terms of entertainment. 

When Gloucester met Bristol in 2018 it was in mid-September, yet the sides only managed five tries between them, the same as Friday night, at an altogether colder time of the year not conducive to running rugby. 

As for Sale v Bath, the game in April 2019 was arguably one of the worst advertisements for Premiership rugby ever, ending 6-3 to the Sharks. Friday was a different ball-game altogether.

If the remaining three games in Round 9 of the Glalagher Premiership are free-for-all try-fests, it will only serve to give ring-fencing supporters more of a voice. 

But they should be careful what they wish for. Diehard fans may continue to turn up and support their favourite etam week in week out but those outside of the sport, or those who only take a passing interest, will wonder all the fuss is about.

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