Doncaster Knights attack rugby union’s plan to raise the drawbridge

Doncaster Knights executive chairman Tony De Mulder is adamant the Championship has a strong legal case to scupper the latest Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL) proposal on relegation and promotion insisting it still amounts to a “cartel”.

By Dave Craven
Tuesday, 28 May, 2019, 21:40
Tony De Mulder

Premiership clubs tried to scrap promotion and relegation entirely earlier this year, but met resistance to ‘ring-fencing’ from both the Rugby Football Union and the second-tier competition.

A compromise has been drawn up that would see the Premiership increased from 12 clubs to 13 and the side that finishes bottom then playing off – home and away – against the Championship victors for the final spot.

Each receives ‘P Shares’ – even when in the second tier – which significantly outweighs anything Championship clubs receive from central funds and makes the task for ambitious clubs like Doncaster, Cornish Pirates and Ealing almost impossible.

PRL would like to get plans in place for 2019-20 with the new season having a delayed start in October due to the World Cup.

“In a way their current idea is still partially ring-fencing considering the funding of the team that’s coming down,” De Mulder said.

“The ‘P Shares’ system for founding members of the PRL in our opinion – and our lawyers’ opinion – is a cartel, or a monopoly, at least.

“The Championship clubs have had that legal advice; it’s been conveyed to PRL. For years we have been asking PRL for us to actually see the P Shares agreement. They have still refused to give it to us.

“In our lawyer’s opinion, number one, the P Share is absolutely devastating for any (non-PRL) Championship club who gets into the Premiership because of the lack of funding.

“The other is anyone who comes down from the Premiership has then also got a huge advantage over the other Championship clubs.

“We get £600,000 from the RFU, part of which is for stadium development and community work, not just for paying players.

“What the Premiership clubs get is in the millions and a huge difference in the funding.

“The sort of body we’d go to is the Competition Markets Authority. We’d present our case to them who would then hopefully take it on board.

“Those guys have a lot of power. They have the power to make businesses – and it (PRL) is a business – alter what they are doing.

“Most Championship clubs spend at least £1m on their squads alone. You’d want something along those lines and it should be made fair if we are going to take this (deal) on.”

Traditionally teams that have earned promotion have struggled to establish themselves in the elite with Bristol, Yorkshire Carnegie, London Irish and Newcastle all clubs that have suffered relegation more than once.

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London Welsh, of course, have been promoted twice since 2012, but went straight back down on each occasion and eventually went into liquidation two years ago.

Carnegie, relegated in 2011, reached the Championship play-off final against Irish two years ago, but missed out and now are in financial ruin, preparing to play as a part-time club next season.

When still Leeds Carnegie, they sold their PRL shares in 2012 to Exeter Chiefs, a club who, admittedly, did go on and secure themselves in the Premiership, becoming champions in 2017 and finishing runners-up last year.

They offer hope to the rest.

And, after private equity firm CVC Capital Partners invested more than £200m into Premier Rugby in December – for a 27 per cent share – De Mulder feels the Championship is now in a better bargaining position.

“For the first time, in this latest negotiation, the Championship has importance,” he said.

“Before we had little clout. They could tell us what they like.

“But now they have CVC coming in, putting in vast amounts of capital, things are different.

“The CVC have grandiose ideas of getting a good say in all matters in all leagues in Europe and leading onto the Six Nations as well.

“Okay, the Championship is a small cog in that wheel, but we feel that for the first time we have an important role – and that is to protect promotion and relegation. We are safeguarding it.

“There could be another Exeter. At Doncaster we nearly made the Premiership (in 2016) although, I think, if we’d have got there, we’d have come straight down again because of this unfair funding situation.

“Our negotiation will contain lots of elements of this kind to make the funding fairer for promoted clubs.”

De Mulder, 75, is a lifelong Doncaster fan who has invested vast sums himself into the Knights along with fellow benefactor and president Steve Lloyd.

Yet, having lost narrowly in the Championship final to Bristol in 2016, the following year – on the eve of the play-offs – the South Yorkshire club announced they could not afford to go up even if they were promoted.

They aim to help change that, not just for Doncaster but all Championship clubs, in the months ahead.