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Bristol win will intensify ring-fence campaign

By Nick Cain

Bristol’s 17-10 win over Bath at Ashton Gate in front of more than 26,000 fans on Friday night will  have sent shock waves through the Premiership, and the owners looking to ring-fence it.

Their clamour to turn the top tier into a closed shop is likely to grow louder because Bristol’s first round victory over their arch West Country rivals sends a signal that Pat Lam’s side are unlikely to be the relegation fall guys they were on their visit to the top tier the year before last.

The resilience Bristol showed in defence against a disappointing Bath side was matched by their willingness to cut loose in attack, with Luke Morahan providing the inspiration for Alapati Leiua’s match-clinching try with nine minutes remaining.

The Wallaby winger was a constant threat, and, with Irish fly-half Ian Madigan hitting the target with four from four penalty attempts, the promoted side indicated that they will not spurn scoring opportunities.

Bristol’s spirit was evident in their scramble defence and in the way their pack refused to buckle despite being squeezed at the scrum by Bath. It is early days, and Bristol will probably be short of the forward power required for the top six finish Lam aspires to, but they have announced already that they will be hard to beat at Ashton Gate.

The upshot is that the battle to avoid the drop could reach a level of intensity we have not seen before. Unless Worcester (11th last season), Harlequins (10th), Northampton (9th), Sale (8th), Gloucester (7th) – or one of Bath (6th) or Bristol – lose the plot and become marooned at the foot of the table, no club will be in the clear.

(Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

However, no-one should be surprised if the competitiveness of the relegation battle is hijacked by the Premiership owners as a reason for scrapping it this season, despite the RFU’s recent reiteration of their commitment to one-up one-down.

It is why you cannot avoid the strong sense that, although Lam could be walking the relegation tight-rope and so facing the long drop, in reality the Premiership safety net is located a few inches underneath the Bristol coach – and the same applies to any other Premiership coach who gets into difficulties.

The argument that all the clubs involved currently in the Premiership will be far better prepared for the fray than any side promoted from the Championship is already being rehearsed.

The old Premiership stalking horse of a ring-fenced elite league was let out of the paddock again a couple of weeks ago to gauge the level of opposition, and it appears that the handful of Premiership owners championing an end to promotion-relegation have been working overtime.

They got a hearing this week when Nigel Melville, the RFU’s director of professional rugby, suggested that if newly-promoted Bristol were relegated this season then the governing body of the English game would be faced with renewed pressure from Premiership clubs to allow a ring-fence.

This followed a recent announcement by Premiership Rugby’s chief executive, Mark McCafferty, that he has concerns about a club like Ealing Trailfinders being ‘unrealistic’ about promotion due to their lack of a suitable support-base and stadium.

Melville said that McCafferty’s point was that the gap between Premiership clubs and most of their Championship counterparts has become massive in terms of finance and playing resources.

He added: “To go up and come down like a yo-yo club every year is probably not a good thing. If the gap continues to get wider and wider, it makes it more difficult to get up there. At the moment the dream is still there if somebody wants to go for it. It’s really a tough ask.”

Melville is right, it is a monumental ask for a Championship club to win promotion and stay up, especially under the existing cartel-like funding handicaps imposed by the Premiership. However, what the RFU should remember is that Bristol were no-hopers until billionaire owner Steve Lansdown bought into the club six years ago.

It begs the question why Lansdown – or his Bath counterpart Bruce Craig – should have any more right to secure a permanent place in the Premiership than other millionaire backers like Dicky Evans at Cornish Pirates or Mike Gooley at Ealing.

It has taken the Championship clubs much too long to articulate the case against the restrictive practices employed by the Premiership. However, in last week’s Rugby Paper, the broadside from Ealing managing director Ben Ward hit the target.

Where Melville says that everything would be fine with promotion-relegation if the gap between the two leagues was not too wide, Ward argues passionately that the reason for the disparity is because the Premiership have no desire to work with the Championship clubs.

Ward savaged the absence of any co-operation or funding parity for promoted sides as there is in France between the LNR’s Top 14 and ProD2 leagues, and highlighted how the idea of a new English Cup involving Championship clubs was scuppered by the Premiership.

While this has gone on, the RFU have spent most of the time on the sidelines looking the other way rather than governing in English rugby’s best interests by getting the Championship clubs a fair deal.

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