It has long astounded me that people see promotion and relagation as something that equates competitivness. I say to people, look at the USA/Canada and NBA and NHL (and NFL). They are all considered to be the best leagues in their sport. Ice hockey players, basketball players all over the world see it as the best that can happen to them is to play ”over there”. Some are drafted but many are not and go over to North America a few years later in their career when they have developed and become better players. Can anyone say that these leagues are not competitive?? They do not have any relegation or promotion. The franchise can shift and the teams can suddenly move location but results in the league are not what matters.
What is it that matters then? It is the individual quality of the players. If a player is not good enough he, not the team, is demoted to the farm team in a minor league and will play there. The players move up and down on a daily basis at times depending on injuries etc. For the induvidual player the challange is to become good enough to play in the top league.
In my home town we have an ice hockey team which the last years have been among the top teams in the league SHL. We do have relegation but my team have not been relegated since they were promoted in 1984. This is a team with it’s base in a small town, around 70 000 inhabitants, and even fewer people living in nearby areas. Pretty good yes? How? Because without any papers signed they run it as a regional team. The local clubs, and I am talking an area bigger than Wales but with only around 200 00 people living there, all work under the assumption that their best players will move on either to the team in my home town (common) or to another team in the top tier (less common). They do not seriously attempt to gain promotion to the top tier as they realise that it is not an option for a small town/village for many reasons (cost being the main one). However, they have a team in the top tier which they co-operate with, regarding players, junior league set up, secondary school and sport and so on. Some players move ”down” if in need of playing time, some move ”up” as they have improved or as injury cover. All this means that it’s the local clubs’ team in the top tier. Most people in the area support the team in my home town as their team in the top tier, at the same time they still support their local team. A regional team is like a national team just for a smaller area.
The youth game is organised in a similar way but on a more local level. There are a few different leagues in place in the towns/areas. The better players in the local area end up playing for the main club in that area as they reach a certain age. If they don’t want to they don’t have to obviuosly and can then stay in their local club. Playing for the main club usually means more trainings and more of a committment.
I am not saying that there are no problems with competitiveness in the Pro12 but for me they do not stem from the fact that there is no relegation/promotion. The quality of the league on the whole can be a problem, too easy to win? But is it? The reward for winning not big enough? The complaint that the Irish rest their players doesn’t cut it with me, what do the French teams do when they play away? However their replacements are often another international player…but again that is a different issue than relagation and promotion.
However, regional rugby should be about the clubs seeing their regional team as their ”national team”. If you are a good enough player you are picked to play for your region, if not, you play for your club. The regions should be involved in developing players from the grassroots as they are the ones that will reap the rewards if more good players come through the system. If that means direct involvement, that is running their own teams in local leagues or just setting the framework is not important really. The main thing is to create an understanding that we are all in this together.