Is the Premiership Rugby Cup Fit for Purpose?

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Premiership Rugby Cup
NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 28: Glen Young of Newcastle Falcons attempts to charge down a kick by Sam Maunder of Exeter Chiefs during the Premiership Rugby Cup match between Newcastle Falcons and Exeter Chiefs at Kingston Park on October 28, 2018 in Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom. (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)

After the Welsh rugby sides pulled out of the Anglo-Welsh Cup last season, Premiership Rugby replaced the competition with the Premiership Rugby Cup.

That new variation saw all 12 Premiership sides competing in three pools, across a shortened window of competition. The sides would play each other once and then, sides would all take part in ‘derby day’ weekend after Christmas; that made up the fourth round of the competition.

A very new equation for English rugby clubs to participate in, both in their planning towards the 2018/19 Premiership objectives and in developing new talent.

After the regular 2018/19 season, sides will progress to semi-finals and finals format that will conclude the season at the Grand Final on June 1, 2019

Premiership Rugby Cup

Some have criticized the competition in the past for its lack of fan engagement, as well as a drop in quality in comparison to the Premiership. However, the competition offers a great opportunity for young and fringe squad members.

It also provides a key ‘stepping stone’ from the Premiership Rugby Shield.

Last Word On Rugby looks at whether the competition is fit for purpose and if anything can be done to improve it. 

Television Revenue and Fan Attendances

It is no secret that the Premiership Rugby Cup does not pull in nearly as much in terms of TV revenue and matchday attendances as the Premiership or the Champions Cup. This season, with the exodus of the Welsh sides, there are no new match ups on show.

The fact that there are just Premiership sides in the competition means it is criticized for a lack of variety. As well, fans are also much less likely to engage with a product that sports fewer household names – so the difficulty to gain an audience is one aspect of the competition that appears to have not been improved in 2018/19.

This always tends to be the case with the Premiership Rugby Cup though, as squads rotate in the competition. The competition is also noticeably lower in terms of the standard on display. This has led to some questioning the viability of the competition as a product.

However, this season’s Premiership Rugby Cup has taken some steps to try to up fan excitement. The introduction of the ‘Derby Day’ weekend will help this. Hopefully, fans are more likely to tune in or buy tickets for a match against local rivals [in the same way, a Super Rugby local derby is anticipated by viewers across the globe].

This step also shows that Premiership Rugby are aware of deficiencies of their product and, crucially, are taking measures to try to improve it. Will these changes solve the issues that surround the competition? Probably not, but it does show a step in the right direction.

Opportunities for Young Players

One area where the Premiership Rugby Cup does excel is in the chance it provides young players. Looking across this weekend’s action we have seen a number of exciting young English talent. To name just a few Joel Kpoku looks an absolute specimen of a second-rower for Saracens. Equally the likes of young scrum-half Sam Maunder played admirably for Exeter against Newcastle.

Taking these to players as an example the Premiership Rugby Cup gives them first team game time they would otherwise not have got. With the depth, Saracens and Exeter have at second-row and scrum-half respectively, this competition provides a great chance for players like these two.

We have seen a number of players come through this competition. Joe Simmonds is a name that springs to mind. He burst onto the scene last season due to the opportunity afforded to him by the competition. Maro Itoje also first cut his teeth in the competition so it does have a track record for developing young talent.

Chances for Fringe and Senior Players

Furthermore, as Exeter skills coach Ricky Pellow highlighted this week, the Premiership Rugby Cup gives players ‘who are just inches away from Premiership selection something to play for’. This means that this competition can be used to see those fringe squad players. It also gives them a chance to stake a claim for Premiership start.

We saw that this weekend with the likes of Max Bodilly impressing for Exeter after a long lay off with an injury. Ben Vellacott also had a strong showing for Gloucester. The wing pairing of Adam Radwan and Zach Kiberige have given Dean Richards selection headaches going forward. The inclusion of fringe these fringe players demonstrates the relevancy of the competition. Thus illustrating its importance to clubs if they have the depth available to them.

The Premiership Rugby Cup also differs from the A-League competition; as sides tend to include more experienced players. Greg Holmes is another experienced head that started for the Chiefs this weekend. He told us that he sees his role as ‘slightly different’ in the competition. Noting that the younger guys sometimes ‘do need a little bit of guidance’. This once again demonstrates the importance of the competition. It allows younger players to play alongside and learn from more experienced individuals in a much less pressurized environment.

Does the Premiership Rugby Cup Work for Everyone?

Above we have noted some of the success stories of the competition. However what happens to teams that do not have the squad depth of the likes of Saracens and Exeter? Bristol and Wasps both suffered heavy defeats this weekend. Both of these sides are not known for having huge squad depth. Bristol in particular are likely to be more concerned with Premiership survival than the Premiership Rugby Cup.

Not all sides in the competition can give it the level of attention or have the squad to utilize the opportunity it provides. This is to the detriment of the competition but there is little that can be done about it. If a side does not have a deep squad or wants to prioritize the Premiership then that is their prerogative.

Is there a Better Solution?

The important thing to consider when criticizing in Premiership Rugby Cup is whether it can be any better. Those that want the competition scrapped all together are missing the point of its existence. There needs to be a stepping stone from the A-League to the Premiership for the reasons outlined above. Obviously, we would all like to see a higher standard of rugby with larger crowds but is that possible?

One suggestion is to attempt to include different sides in the competition. However other Celtic sides appear to be disinterested after the exodus of the Welsh sides last season. The Irish sides withdrew from the British and Irish Cup last year. So this appears to be not possible in the current climate.

Some would like to see Championship sides in the competition to add variety. Although we agree the competition does need more varied match-ups, we struggle to see how this could work. Including all the sides would make the competition too large. So you would be left in a position of choosing which sides you wanted in which does not seem a viable option. Even if this were to happen there is no guarantee that these sides would take the competition seriously anyway. It is also unlikely the inclusion of Championship sides would improve the quality of the competition.

Concluding thoughts on 2018/19 model

It appears to me, that the Premiership Rugby Cup does serve its purpose.

However, only to those clubs that have the squad depth the compete in it. The competition does have an issue with fan engagement but with the current situation, it is difficult to see how it can improve much more.

So rugby fans are likely to be left with what we have now. Which is not a bad product by any means but, one that could certainly be improved in different circumstances.

 

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