The domestic leagues in northern Europe can be tough to get your head around for a US fan, particularly with their fall-to-spring formats, but the Premiership is not only perhaps the most high-profile domestic rugby league in the world, it’s also one of the simplest to understand. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some things that might need a bit of explaining, so let World Rugby Shop take the strain…
Why is it called the Aviva Premiership?
England’s top tier rugby competition is broadly referred to as the English Premiership, or just the Premiership – it’s currently called the Aviva Premiership thanks to a title-sponsorship deal with the insurance company of the same name, which has been the case since 2010. Previously it’s been known as the Guinness Premiership, the Zurich Premiership, the Allied Dunbar Premiership and originally the Courage Premiership… so don’t get too hung up on the name, it changes fairly regularly!
England invented rugby, so the Premiership must be an ancient competition, right?
Wrong! Due to concerns over the appearance of professionalism (don’t forget that rugby union was a strictly amateur sport until 1995) and worries that it might encourage violence, the powers that be in English rugby strongly resisted the formation of formal leagues for decades. Instead, major newspapers created regional and national ‘merit leagues’ – teams were nominally grouped together based on their perceived quality, and their results against other teams (but not teams outside of their division) used to determine a winner at the end of the season – think of it as an even more confusing and unsatisfactory version of the NCAA ranking polls!
It wasn’t until 1987 that common sense prevailed, and a formal national league structure was introduced in England, encompassing around 1,000 clubs in 108 leagues, with the 12 team Premiership at the top of the pyramid.
So is it the same teams every year?
No, and that’s one of the most interesting and compelling aspects of the Premiership format compared to closed leagues such as the Pro 12 or Super Rugby. The team finishing at the bottom of the Premiership table at the end of the season is relegated to the second tier of English rugby, and replaced with the team that finished at the top of that second tier competition, which is known as the Championship.
It’s a fact that creates a great deal of tension and drama, as teams at the bottom end of the table fight it out to try to avoid ‘the drop,’ meaning that even teams that are out of the running for the the title still have a lot to play for – you could argue that it’s even more important. Teams that get relegated often struggle to come back up straight away, and the financial and prestige implications of relegation can have serious consequences for players, coaches and the club itself.
So how do they pick a winner?
For the first 16 years, the winner of the Premiership was the team that finished at the top of the table at the end of the final round of games – each team plays each other home and away, with match points awarded for wins and draws, and teams are ranked based on the number of match points they’ve earned.
However, from the 2002/03, a playoff system was introduced to determine the champion. The current format pits the top four teams on the league ladder at the end of the regular season against each other, with first playing fourth and second playing third in knock-out games to earn a place in the Final. The Aviva Premiership Final is usually played at the home of English rugby, Twickenham Stadium, and the winner of that game is crowned the Premiership champion.
Why should I care?
Well, even though the Premiership has only been running for about 30 years, many of the teams involved have rivalries that date back much further – the intense rivalry between historic clubs such as Bath and Gloucester, or Leicester and Northampton date back more than a century, and it’s that tribal rivalry that adds a special level of passion and excitement to many Premiership games.
Also, for fans based in the US, you should care about the Premiership because you can watch it every week! The AP is currently halfway through a three-year deal with NBC Sports, which gives NBC the rights to broadcast all of the Premiership action in the USA. As part of the deal, NBC show one ‘Game Of The Week’ for every Aviva Premiership round on NBCSN, plus around 50 other games online. What better way to get into European domestic rugby, and find yourself a Premiership team to root for?