How the Premier League was reborn and delivered an exciting battle for the play-offs: ‘Anyone can beat anyone’

The Gallagher Premiership season is set for a thrilling finale in the coming week (Getty)

The Gallagher Premiership marketing team have been working hard to deliver big sales at the end of the season. When the competition resumed after the Six Nations, news emerged of some key linguistic adjustments that the English top flight were keen to highlight as the showdown approached. The sprint to the finish would be called ‘The Run In’, while the term ‘Playoffs’ – previously avoided for fear of unnecessary Americanization – would now be preferred for the two matches previously known as semi-finals.

It may have been a commendable attempt to legitimize and commercialize this latest shift, but there’s an argument that they needn’t have worried about it. Rugby has sold itself quite a bit in recent weeks; it’s hard to remember a domestic English season as a highly contentious or compelling one.

The penultimate weekend of the season begins with eight teams still remarkably hopeful of a top-four finish, with no one yet to secure a place and only Northampton sitting (fairly) comfortably at the top of the pile. It would take a minor miracle for Leicester to salvage a play-off spot from ninth, but with only six points separating second and seventh – anything can happen.

Only Northampton looks safe in a play-off place ahead of the penultimate round (Getty Images)Only Northampton looks safe in a play-off place ahead of the penultimate round (Getty Images)

Only Northampton looks safe in a play-off place ahead of the penultimate round (Getty Images)

There are numerous factors that influence this apparent condensation. The loss of three Premiership clubs over the course of last season left a surplus of top players ready to fly, concentrating talent within English rugby and boosting competition and standards across clubs. A 10-team league might be a better reflection of the talent pool and interest in the top flight, however horrible the method of reducing bloat.

A stricter, smaller salary cap has also helped – richer clubs can no longer spend money on success – while the removal of relegation has brought stability and encouraged coaches to rely on youth and attacking ambition.

“It’s a shame that three teams have to fold, but it makes it very tight, which is great for the competition,” Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care said last weekend. “Anyone can beat anyone, that makes it exciting. We would like to be in a position where we are guaranteed a top four finish, but unfortunately that is not the case.”

Newcastle’s plight has also helped those above them. The hapless Falcons have found themselves adrift at the bottom and look set to finish the season winless. In many ways the club should be admired for taking the courageous decision to reduce costs and run their rugby program more sustainably. Recent attendance figures have been positive, but it is worrying that Guy Pepper, Phil Brantingham and Louie Johnson – three of their brightest playing talents – have been plucked from the nest by bigger clubs ahead of next season.

Of those in the running, it would be a bit of a surprise for Saracens if they don’t send off Owen Farrell and the Vunipolas with a play-off appearance, while Mark McCall’s serial winners end with a trip to Bristol and a home game against Sale and two wins should be enough.

Saracens hope to give Owen Farrell a winning send-off (Getty Images)Saracens hope to give Owen Farrell a winning send-off (Getty Images)

Saracens hope to give Owen Farrell a winning send-off (Getty Images)

Bath also look well placed and take on Newcastle on Friday before Northampton, perhaps resting a few, visit the Rec on the final day. Finn Russell is fit again and Johann van Graan’s recent contract extension is testament to the positive atmosphere surrounding a club that believes the time has come for a long-awaited breakthrough. This could see Harlequins and Bristol have a play-in for the play-offs on the final day, although Exeter and Sale will certainly have a say.

The Premier League should remain relatively stable next season, with only one Championship club meeting the Rugby Football Union (RFU) criteria to have a chance of promotion, and that side, Doncaster, some distance away pace setter Ealing. The future of the second tier should become clearer with the long-awaited details of the Professional Game Partnership (PGP) between the association and Premiership Rugby expected to be made public soon.

While the core of the PGP has been agreed and more details should become publicly available soon, a senior executive at the RFU privately warned last week that more work still needs to be done. The union also hesitates to discuss the circumstances or vagaries, preferring to make any announcement “substantial and significant.”

Eight Premier League clubs still hoping to reach the last four (Getty Images for Sale Sharks)Eight Premier League clubs still hoping to reach the last four (Getty Images for Sale Sharks)

Eight Premier League clubs still hoping to reach the last four (Getty Images for Sale Sharks)

“It’s a complex deal,” said Bill Sweeney, the RFU’s chief executive The independent two weeks ago. “The current deal is eight years old and this is not just an extension or a renewal or an adjustment, it is a change in the way we function together. That’s why it took so long.”

There are great hopes within the game that the final agreement will cement the more collaborative approach that English rugby has achieved in recent years. The loss of four professional clubs – including 2022-23 Championship winners Jersey alongside Worcester, Wasps and London Irish – showed that the status quo was not working, and it was encouraging to hear senior figures talk at length about a joint strategy.

Steps are slowly being taken towards a more sustainable sport. The salary cap will rise again next season from £5 million to the previous figure of £6.4 million, although few clubs are expected to challenge the higher cap as they have recognized the need to do things differently. The Premiership has extended its broadcast deal with TNT Sports at what is believed to be a reduced rate in a buyers’ market, although the fact that the channel will broadcast every game is a positive.

Negotiations continue to retain a free-to-air broadcast partner, in line with ITV’s existing seven-match-per-season agreement, ensuring exposure to new viewers who should be attracted by the strength of the product. Because the Premier League is booming, at least on the pitch: two weeks, ten games, four play-off spots up for grabs – prepare for a furious photo finish.

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