English rugby union system
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Men's Rugby union in England consists of 106 leagues, which includes professional leagues at the highest level, down to amateur regional leagues. Promotion and relegation are in place throughout the system.
Women's Rugby union in England consists of 26 leagues, which includes a national semi-professional league at the highest level, down to amateur regional leagues. Promotion and relegation are in place throughout the system, with the exception of the Women's Premiership.
Historically, there were no leagues allowed as these were seen as a sign of professionalism. In the 1970s the RFU allowed the creation of regional merit leagues with the most significant ones being the North, Midlands, South West and London merit leagues. In 1984 the RFU approved the creation of two national merit tables where clubs had to play a minimum of eight games against the clubs in their division. 1985 saw the creation of a third national merit league. In 1987 this was formed into a true national league system.
The format and competitiveness of the leagues has changed greatly since the leagues were first formed and the latest widespread and global restructuring of the leagues was announced in November 2008, for implementation from the 2009–10 season. Under this new structure, the top league remains the 12-team Gallagher Premiership. The second tier league has been rebranded and restructured; as the RFU Championship which has replaced the old National Division One. This league also has 12 teams, and like the Premiership, is professional. Beneath the two professional leagues, the National Leagues have been restructured to include a new 16 team National League 1, 16 team National League 2 South and 16 team National League 2 North. The four top regional leagues are now part of National League 3 at level five.
For the 2017-18 season, the National League 3 leagues have been renamed to have Premier as part of their title in order to make a distinction between regional rugby union and the National Leagues above. Other changes that season would see London 3 North East be replaced by two new leagues - London 3 Eastern Counties and London 3 Essex - with teams transferred depending on location.
In 2020, it was announced that a new league structure would be implemented in the community game from 2022–23. The new structure which was partly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic will be reviewed every three years and will see the following changes:
- The size of leagues at levels 3 and 4 are capped at 14 teams (down from 16).
- The size of leagues at level 5 and below are capped at 12 teams (down from 14).
- Level 4 will consist of three leagues (up from 2).
- Level 5 will consist of six leagues (up from 4).
- Level 6 will consist of twelve leagues (up from 8).
- A shortened season and protected breaks over Christmas and at specified other times for player welfare.
- Leagues largely regional based to reduce travel.
- An optional cup competition introduced for level 5 and below.
Below level 6 leagues sizes will depend on number of teams and geographical location.
In February 2021, the RFU approved a moratorium on relegation from both the Premiership and Championship in response to uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was also confirmed that league structure and minimum standards criteria for promotion were being reviewed. The moratorium only covered relegation and did not include promotion from the Championship meaning the Premiership expanded to 13 teams with the Championship reduced to 11 in 2021–22 with the promotion of Saracens.
In June 2021, as part of the wider review the moratorium was extended by a further two years in the Premiership and also included relegation from the Championship in 2021–22 and promotion from the Championship following the 2022–23 season. This means the Premiership may be further expanded to 14 teams in 2022–23 and the Championship may be reduced to 10. A summary of changes is outlines below:
- Premiership expanded to 13 teams in 2021–22; Championship reduced to 11
- Premiership may expand to 14 teams in 2022–23; Championship may reduce to 10. No team relegated from Premiership or promoted from Championship
- Introduction of a play-off between the bottom placed team in Premiership and top placed team in Championship in 2023–24 with the winner playing in the Premiership the following season.
Promotion remains subject to minimum standards which have been reviewed and include several factors.
Level 1: Premiership Rugby
Premiership Rugby is the top level league in England, containing the best 13 professional clubs. The premiership still includes strict ground criteria and a salary cap that must be met by all participants. Promotion from the Championship remains, however the bottom side have not been relegated since the end of the 2019–20 season. The promoted club must meet the minimum standards criteria. The promoted club will no longer be the top team in the RFU Championship after the league season; the champions being decided by a play-off system which is hoped to bring to an end a select number of clubs bouncing between the leagues. (For example, each season between 2005–06 and 2008–09 saw the club relegated to National Division One earning promotion to the Premiership the following season, and also either the promotion or relegation of Leeds Carnegie.) Debate still continues over the question of promotion and relegation, but with the strict criteria fears are reduced.
Level 2: RFU Championship
The new RFU Championship was formed in 2009–10 to provide a second tier of professional competition. The former National Division One was decreased from 16 clubs to 12 to accommodate the new fixture structure. For the first three seasons this included:
- a first phase of 22 regular season games
- for the top eight teams, a second group phase, with the teams split into two groups; the top two teams in each group advanced to promotion play-offs, with the winner earning promotion provided they met Premiership entry standards
- for the bottom four teams, a separate group phase, without a play-off, to determine the relegation place
- participation in a new British and Irish Cup with Irish, Scottish and Welsh clubs
- a minimum of 32 games per season
Starting with the 2012–13 season, the second group stage was discontinued. The top four teams at the end of the home-and-away season entered play-offs to determine the league champion, which earned promotion providing Premiership entry standards were met. The bottom team at the end of home-and-away season was relegated to, and replaced by the champions of, the third tier National League 1.
From 2017–18 through to 2019–20, the championship play-off was eliminated. The league-season champions earned automatic promotion (again, assuming that they meet Premiership standards). Relegation criteria did not change.
Levels 3-5: National Leagues
The new National League structure includes:
Level 3: National League 1
The former National Division Two was renamed and increased from 14 to 16 teams. This resulted in a 30-game season on a home and away basis. The champions are promoted to the level 2 RFU Championship, and the three bottom sides are relegated to the level 4 National League 2 North or National League 2 South depending on geographical location.
Level 4: National League 2 South and National League 2 North
The previous National Division Three leagues became National League 2, keeping the same structure as previous except for being increased to 16 teams each. The two league champions are promoted, with the two runners-up meeting in a promotion play-off to decide the third promoted team. The bottom three in each league are relegated to their respective regional division. A new element is that the champions will meet in a National Final.
Level 5: National League 3
The former top regional leagues became the lowest level of the national league structure, increasing in size from 12 to 14 teams. The leagues are:
The four champions are promoted to either the National League 2 North or National League 2 South, the four runners up enter play-offs to decide the other two promoted sides. The four champions clubs also meet in a knock-out national finals competition.
With the restructuring, levels 6–12 became the new regional system. There are now 8 regional Division 1 leagues, which are connected to the national leagues by promotion and relegation.
The table below shows the current structure of the system. For each division, its official name, sponsorship name (which differs from its historic name) and number of clubs is given. At levels 1–3, each division promotes to the national division(s) that lie directly above it and relegates to the national division(s) that lie directly below it. Below that level, clubs relegate to the nearest local league. 
- "RFU". RFU League Tables. Retrieved 21 April 2020.
- "RFU". England Rugby. Retrieved 21 April 2020.
- Tony Williams and Bill Mitchell, ed. (1990). Official Rugby Union Club Directory 1990-91. Windsor: Burlington Publishing Co Ltd.
- "Renaming of RFU National 3 Leagues". Oxfordshire RFU. Retrieved 16 July 2017.
- "RFU Approve Future Competition Structure for 2022-23". NCA Rugby. 27 November 2020. Retrieved 30 June 2021.
- "Adult Male Future Competitions Structure from Season 2022-23". www.englandrugby.com. 16 April 2021. Retrieved 30 June 2021.
- "RFU Council approve moratorium on relegation from Gallagher Premiership Rugby for 2020-21 season and a review of minimum standards for future seasons". Premiership Rugby. Retrieved 30 June 2021.
- "RFU Council Vote in Favour of COVID Recovery Plan". www.englandrugby.com. 29 June 2021. Retrieved 30 June 2021.
- http://www.scrum.com/scrum/rugby/story/86076.html (Explains new structure)
- https://www.englandrugby.com/news/article/final-league-positions-for-community-game-confirmed-qazxsw (shows Level 2-5 Women's structure)