By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - England's rugby Premiership will not feature relegation this year and will increase to 13 clubs next season to accommodate the winners of the second-tier Championship, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) said on Friday.
There will also be a one-year moratorium on relegation from the Championship, but in a blow to ambitious clubs outside the top flight, the RFU warned that the freeze on relegation from both divisions could be in place for several years.
The RFU said in a statement https://www.englandrugby.com/news/article/rfu-council-votes-in-favour-of-no-premiership-relegation: "Council members considered the impact COVID-19 has had on all areas of the game, including the earlier decision to suspend promotion and relegation in the community game and the Gallagher Premiership cancelling a significant number of matches in the 2020/21 season.
"These cancellations have resulted in a material impact on league positions which could mean relegation based on cancellation not on field merit."
The decision to suspend relegation was expected earlier this week but did not go ahead after reports host broadcaster BT was concerned that without potential relegation battles, too many matches would be dead rubbers and not attractive TV fare.
However, the RFU Council, with the approval of the Premiership clubs, went ahead on Friday.
"We welcome today’s decision and thank the RFU Council members for their support," Darren Childs, CEO of Premiership Rugby said in a statement https://www.premiershiprugby.com/news/remiership-rugby-statement-rfu-council-approve-moratorium-on-relegation-from-gallagher-premiership-rugby-for-the-2020-21-season.
"The priority for everyone involved has been to protect the long-term sustainability and success of English professional rugby for the fans and clubs who have endured huge financial and sporting challenges throughout the last two seasons."
RFU President Jeff Blackett said: "The RFU Council has taken time to understand and discuss all the factors regarding no relegation for this season so that we act in the best interests of all levels of the game.
"We want to ensure a healthy elite game to support successful, winning England teams that generate income to stimulate and preserve the game across all levels."
The RFU said there will be discussions on potential changes for the season structure for 2021/22 and beyond, adding "it is hoped there will be a different approach to promotion and relegation. The aim will be to retain the ambition of clubs in the Championship and below and to continue to allow a route to promotion."
However, the statement added that "new minimum standard criteria, investment in facilities and club funding" would also be discussed, suggesting the vast majority of clubs in the Championship, where many are run on a part-time model, will find their path to promotion blocked.
They will also be anxious for clarification on part of the statement that read: "It is likely that any structures may also include a further moratorium on promotion and relegation for three or four seasons, after which the structure will be subject to further review."
Saracens, who were relegated automatically last season as punishment for salary cap breaches, are the heavy odds-on favourites to top the Championship, which will belatedly begin its season next month.
Last season 's Premiership and European champions Exeter won promotion to the top flight for the first time in 2010. Current leaders Bristol came up in 2018, while seventh-placed Newcastle were promoted last year.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips; Editing by Toby Chopra and Ken Ferris)