English Premiership (rugby union)

English Premiership
Country  England
Founded 1987
Number of teams 12
Level on pyramid 1
Relegation to RFU Championship
Domestic cup(s) Anglo-Welsh Cup
International cup(s) European Rugby Champions Cup
European Rugby Challenge Cup
Current champions Saracens
Most championships Leicester Tigers (10 titles)
TV partners BT Sport
ITV (Highlights only)
Website premiershiprugby.com
2016–17 English Premiership (rugby union)

The English Premiership (also known as the Aviva Premiership due to sponsorship reasons)[1] is an English professional rugby union competition. The Premiership consists of twelve clubs, and is the top division of the English rugby union system. Premiership clubs qualify for Europe's two main club competitions, the European Rugby Champions Cup and the European Rugby Challenge Cup. The team finishing at the bottom of the Premiership each season is relegated to the second-division RFU Championship, and the winner of the Championship is promoted to the Premiership.

The competition has been played since 1987, and has evolved into the current Premiership system. The current champions are Saracens. The most recently promoted side is Bristol, who have returned to the top flight after defeating Doncaster in the 2015-16 RFU Championship Play-Off Final.


See also: History of the English rugby union system

Beginnings: English domestic rugby union until 1972

The governing body of rugby union in England, the Rugby Football Union (RFU), long resisted leagues as it was believed that the introduction of leagues would increase 'dirty' play and put pressure on clubs to pay their players (thereby contravening the amateur ethos). Instead, clubs arranged their own friendlies and had traditional games. The only organised tournaments were the County Cups and County Championship — the former played by clubs and the latter by County representative teams. The Daily Telegraph and a few local newspapers — such as the Yorkshire Post — compiled 'pennants' based on teams' performances, but as the strength of fixture lists varied, it was at best an estimate of a team's performance throughout a season.

1972–1995: Leagues and cups

In 1972 the RFU sanctioned a national knock-out cup — the R.F.U. Club Competition, the predecessor to today's Anglo-Welsh Cup — followed first by regional merit tables and then, in the mid-1980s, by national merit tables. One of the casualties of the move to competitive leagues was the loss of traditional games as the new fixture lists did not allow enough time for them.

The league system has evolved since its start in 1987 when the Courage Leagues were formed — a league pyramid with roughly 1000 clubs playing in 108 leagues each with promotion and relegation.

In the first season, clubs were expected to arrange the fixtures on mutually convenient dates. The clubs involved were Bath, Bristol, Coventry, Gloucester, Harlequins, Leicester, Moseley, Nottingham, Orrell, Sale, Wasps and Waterloo. That first season was an unqualified success, with clubs in the upper echelons of the national leagues reporting increased crowds, interest from both local backers and national companies, and higher skill levels among players exposed to regular competition. The fears that leagues would lead to greater violence on the field proved largely unfounded.

By the next season, the RFU allocated fixed Saturdays to the league season, removing the clubs' responsibility for scheduling matches. There was no home and away structure to the leagues in those early seasons, as sides played one another only once.

Initially two teams, Bath and Leicester, proved to be head and shoulders above the rest in the Courage League, and between them dominated the top of the table.

In 1994 the league structure expanded to include a full rota of home and away matches for the first time. The 1994–95 season was the first to be shown live on Sky Sports, a relationship which continued until the 2013–14 season when BT Sport acquired the exclusive rights.[2]

1996: The dawn of professional rugby union

The league turned professional for the 1996–97 season when the first winners were London Wasps, joining Bath and Leicester as the only champions in the league's first decade. Clubs like Saracens, Newcastle and Northampton were able to attract wealthy benefactors, but the professional era also had its casualties, as clubs like West Hartlepool, Richmond and London Scottish were forced into administration when their backers pulled out.[3]

2000–2002: Premiership, Championship and playoffs

The start of the 2000–01 season brought with it a re-vamping of the season structure. In 2000–2001 an 8-team playoff (the Championship) was introduced. However, the team finishing top of the table at the end of the regular season was still considered English champions ("Premiership title").

Halfway through the 2001–02 season, with Leicester odds-on to win their fourth title in succession, it was controversially decided that the winners of the 8-team playoffs would be crowned English champions.[4] There was an outcry from fans and this proposal was dropped.

2003–2014: The ascendancy of the playoffs

From the beginning of the 2002–03 season, a new playoff format was introduced to replace the 8-team Championship. The format required the first placed team in the league to play the winner of a match between the second- and third-placed teams. Critically, the winner of this game (the Premiership Final) would be recognised as English champions. Although Gloucester won the league by a clear margin, they then faced a three-week wait until the final. Having lost their momentum the second-placed Wasps (who had defeated third-placed Northampton) beat them easily in the play-offs. The playoff structure was reformatted in the 2005–06 season in which the first placed team would play the fourth placed team in a semi-final (a Shaughnessy playoff).

Since the implementation of the playoff system, only four teams have won both the regular season and playoffs in the same year; Leicester in 2000–01 (the first year of the playoffs) and again in 2008–09 and 2009–10, Sale Sharks in 2005–06, Harlequins 2011–12 and Saracens in 2015-16.

Of all the Premiership teams, Wasps have made a reputation for playing the competition format to perfection, peaking at the right time to be crowned English Champions in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2008. Wasps did not lead the league standings at the end of the season in any of these years. Indeed, the formerly London club have not finished top of the league since the playoffs began. Conversely Gloucester have garnered an unfortunate reputation for leading the table at the end of the regular season only to fall short of winning the Premiership title losing finals in 2003, 2007 and 2008. Gloucester's single victory in the playoffs, in 2002, occurred when the league leaders, in that season Leicester, were still considered English champions, Gloucester's Championship victory being considered secondary.

The 2011–12 season saw Harlequins add their name to the trophy on their first attempt, winning 30-23 against the nine times champions Leicester. With their first ever English Premiership title, they are only the sixth club to win the Premiership since its creation in 1997, the others being Newcastle Falcons, London Wasps, Leicester Tigers, Sale Sharks and Saracens.[5] Leicester's 10th championship would have to wait until 2012–13, defeating Northampton in the final.

The 2013–14 Aviva Premiership Season saw Northampton add their name to the trophy for the first time, becoming the 8th different team to do so. This was achieved by defeating Leicester Tigers in the Semi Final 21–20 and denying Leicester a 10th Consecutive Final.[6] In the final they defeated Saracens 20–24 with a try in the last minute of extra time to win the 2013–14 Aviva Premiership.[7][8]

2014–present: US initiatives

With the future of the Heineken Cup uncertain beyond 2013–14, due to a row between England's Premiership Rugby Limited and France's LNR on one side and the sport's governing bodies on the other, Premiership Rugby Limited has explored several moves toward expanding its brand into the United States. In May 2013, Premiership Rugby Limited and U.S.-based RugbyLaw entered into a plan by which the two organisations were to help back a proposed U.S. professional league that could have begun play as early as 2014.[9] The first phase of the plan was to involve two preseason exhibitions featuring an "American Barbarians" side that will combine international veterans and young American talent. The "Barbarians" were intended to play matches in August 2013 in the U.S. and London, but those plans fell through; the matches are currently indefinitely delayed.[10] In August 2013, Leicester Tigers chairman Peter Tom confirmed that Premiership Rugby Limited had discussed the possibility of bringing select Premiership matches to the US.[9][11]

The first match played in the USA was on 12 March 2016 when London Irish were defeated by Saracens at the Red Bull Arena in the New York Metropolitan Area.[12]


Current clubs

English Premiership clubs
Club Established City Stadium Capacity Titles (Last)
Bath 1865 Bath, Somerset The Recreation Ground 14,000 6 (1996)
Bristol 1888 Bristol Ashton Gate 27,000 0 (N/A)
Exeter Chiefs 1871 Exeter, Devon Sandy Park 12,600 0 (N/A)
Gloucester 1873 Gloucester, Gloucestershire Kingsholm Stadium 16,500 0 (N/A)
Harlequins 1866 Twickenham, London Twickenham Stoop 14,800 1 (2012)
Leicester Tigers 1880 Leicester, Leicestershire Welford Road 25,800 10 (2013)
Newcastle Falcons 1877 Newcastle, Tyneside Kingston Park 10,200 1 (1998)
Northampton Saints 1880 Northampton, Northamptonshire Franklin's Gardens 15,500 1 (2014)
Sale Sharks 1861 Eccles, Greater Manchester AJ Bell Stadium 12,000 1 (2006)
Saracens 1876 Hendon, London Allianz Park 10,000 3 (2016)
Wasps 1867 Coventry, West Midlands Ricoh Arena 32,600 6 (2008)
Worcester Warriors 1871 Worcester, Worcestershire Sixways Stadium 12,024 0 (N/A)

    Participation in Top Flight

    A total of 28 clubs have been involved in the 30 top flight league seasons since its inception in the 1987–88 season. The most recent club to make its debut in the Premiership was London Welsh, which made their Premiership debut in 2012–13.

    Four clubs—Bath, Gloucester, Leicester and Wasps—have appeared in every season to date. Harlequins have only missed the 2005–06 season. Six other clubs have appeared in at least 20 seasons: Saracens, Northampton, Sale, London Irish, Bristol and Newcastle.

    Coventry, Liverpool St Helens, Moseley, Nottingham, Rosslyn Park, Rugby and Waterloo only appeared during the amateur era, whereas Exeter, Leeds, London Welsh, Richmond, Rotherham and Worcester have only appeared during the professional era.

    Below, the 2016–17 clubs are listed in bold; omnipresent clubs are listed in bold italics. Years listed are the calendar years in which the seasons ended.

    Seasons Team Dates
    30 Bath 1988–2017
    20 Bristol Rugby 1988-1998, 2000-2003, 2006–2009, 2017
    3 Bedford 1990, 1999–2000
    1 Coventry 1988
    7 Exeter 2011–2017
    30 Gloucester 1988–2017
    29 Harlequins 1988–2005, 2007–2017
    8 Leeds* 2002–2006, 2008, 2010–2011
    30 Leicester 1988–2017
    2 Liverpool St Helens 1989, 1991
    23 London Irish 1992–1994, 1997–2016
    2 London Scottish 1993, 1999
    2 London Welsh 2013, 2015
    4 Moseley 1988–1992
    20 Newcastle 1994, 1998–2012, 2014–2017
    25 Northampton 1991–1995, 1997–2007, 2009–2017
    5 Nottingham 1988–1992
    10 Orrell 1988-1997
    2 Richmond 1998-1999
    4 Rosslyn Park 1989-1992
    2 Rotherham 2001,2004
    2 Rugby 1992-1993
    24 Sale 1988, 1995–2017
    26 Saracens 1990–1993, 1996–2017
    30 Wasps 1988–2017
    2 Waterloo 1988–1989
    5 West Hartlepool 1993, 1995–1997, 1999
    11 Worcester 2005–2010, 2012–2014,2016-2017


    Regular Season

    The Aviva Premiership Rugby season runs from September to May and comprises 22 rounds of matches, with each club playing each other home and away. The results of the matches contribute points to the league as follows:


    Following the completion of the regular season, the top 4 teams enter the play-off, which is held throughout May. The top two teams receive home advantage, the league leaders hosting the 4th ranked team, and the 2nd place team hosting the 3rd place team. The winners of these semi-finals progress to the final, held at Twickenham Stadium, with the winner of the final being Premiership Champions.


    There is a system of promotion and relegation to and from the Aviva Premiership. The last placed club after the 22 regular season rounds of the Premiership is relegated into the RFU Championship, while the winner of the Championship play offs is promoted to the Premiership for the subsequent season. However, promotion and relegation is subject to a Minimum Standards Criteria. If the winner of the play offs does not meet these standards, then there is no relegation/promotion, as would have been the case in the 2011–12 season when London Welsh won promotion from the Championship but were denied promotion, reprieving Newcastle Falcons from relegation, until London Welsh successfully appealed against their block.[13]

    European competition qualification

    The top six teams qualify for the next season's European Rugby Champions Cup whilst the team in seventh place advances to a playoff for another place. Teams that do not qualify for the Champions Cup play in the European Rugby Challenge Cup.

    Player records

    Bold italics denote active player in the 2016–17 Premiership.

    All records relate to 1997 onward when National League One was re-launched as the Premiership.


    Rank Player Club(s) Years Apps
    1 England Steve Borthwick Bath, Saracens 1998–2014 265
    2 England George Chuter Saracens, Leicester 1997–2014 262
    3 England Charlie Hodgson Sale, Saracens 2000–2016 254
    4 England Tom May Newcastle, Northampton, London Welsh 1999–2015 247
    5 England Hugh Vyvyan Newcastle, Saracens 1998–2012 245
    6 England Phil Dowson Newcastle, Northampton, Worcester 2001– 243
    7 England Simon Shaw Wasps 1997–2011 237
    8 England Andy Goode Leicester, Saracens, Worcester, Wasps, Newcastle 1998–2016 235
    9 England Stuart Hooper Saracens, Leeds, Bath 2000–2016 232
    10 England Duncan Bell Sale, Bath 1997–2012 230


    Rank Player Club(s) Years Points
    1 England Charlie Hodgson Sale, Saracens 2000–2016 2,590
    2 England Andy Goode Leicester, Saracens, Worcester, Wasps, Newcastle 1998–2016 2,285
    3 England Olly Barkley Bath, Gloucester, London Welsh 2001–2015 1,605
    4 New Zealand Nick Evans Harlequins 2008– 1,531
    5 England Jonny Wilkinson Newcastle 1997–2008 1,489
    6 England Stephen Myler Northampton 2006– 1,414
    7 Ireland Barry Everitt London Irish, Northampton 2000–2010 1,267
    8 England Tim Stimpson Newcastle, Leicester, Leeds 1997–2005 1,243
    9 England Paul Grayson Northampton 1997–2005 1,238
    10 New Zealand Glen Jackson Saracens 2004–2010 1,192


    Rank Player Club(s) Years Tries
    1 England Mark Cueto Sale 2001–2015 90
    2 England Tom Varndell Leicester, Wasps, Bristol 2004– 86
    3 England Steve Hanley Sale 1998–2007 75
    4 England Paul Sackey Bedford, London Irish, Wasps, Harlequins 1999–2014 68
    5 England Tom Voyce Bath, Wasps, Gloucester, London Welsh 2000–2013 66
    6 England James Simpson-Daniel Gloucester 2000–2013 63
    7 England Chris Ashton Northampton, Saracens 2008– 62
    8 England Neil Back Leicester 1997–2005 59
    9 England Ben Cohen Northampton, Sale 1997–2011 58
    10 Ireland Geordan Murphy Leicester 1998–2013 57


    Between 1987–2002, the team at the top of the league was crowned English champions. From 2002–03, the winner of the league has been determined with a Premiership Final, which takes place at Twickenham.

    Season Premiership Final Information League Leaders Sponsor
    Winners Score Runners-up
    1987–88 - - - Leicester Tigers Courage Brewery
    1988–89 - - - Bath
    1989–90 - - - Wasps
    1990–91 - - - Bath
    1991–92 - - - Bath
    1992–93 - - - Bath
    1993–94 - - - Bath
    1994–95 - - - Leicester Tigers
    1995–96 - - - Bath
    1996–97 - - - Wasps
    1997–98 - - - Newcastle Falcons Allied Dunbar
    1998–99 - - - Leicester Tigers
    1999–00 - - - Leicester Tigers
    2000–01 - - - Leicester Tigers Zurich
    2001–02 - - - Leicester Tigers
    2002–03 London Wasps 39–3 Gloucester Gloucester
    2003–04 London Wasps 10–6 Bath Bath
    2004–05 London Wasps 39–14 Leicester Tigers Leicester Tigers
    2005–06 Sale Sharks 45–20 Leicester Tigers Sale Sharks Guinness
    2006–07 Leicester Tigers 44–16 Gloucester Gloucester
    2007–08 London Wasps 26–16 Leicester Tigers Gloucester
    2008–09 Leicester Tigers 10–9 London Irish Leicester Tigers
    2009–10 Leicester Tigers 33–27 Saracens Leicester Tigers
    2010–11 Saracens 22–18 Leicester Tigers Leicester Tigers Aviva*
    2011–12 Harlequins 30–23 Leicester Tigers Harlequins
    2012–13 Leicester Tigers 37–17 Northampton Saints Saracens
    2013–14 Northampton Saints 24–20 (a.e.t) Saracens Saracens
    2014–15 Saracens 28–16 Bath Northampton Saints
    2015–16 Saracens 28–20 Exeter Chiefs Saracens

    * Contract lasts until the 2016-17 season.


    # Team Wins Winning Years
    1 Leicester Tigers 10 1987–88, 1994–95, 1998–99, 1999–00, 2000–01, 2001–02,
    2006–07, 2008–09, 2009–10, 2012–13
    2 Bath 6 1988–89, 1990–91, 1991–92, 1992–93, 1993–94, 1995–96
    3 Wasps 6 1989–90, 1996–97, 2002–03, 2003–04, 2004–05, 2007–08
    4 Saracens 3 2010–11, 2014–15, 2015–16
    5 Newcastle Falcons 1 1997–98
    6 Sale Sharks 1 2005–06
    7 Harlequins 1 2011–12
    8 Northampton Saints 1 2013–14

    Salary Cap

    The English Premiership operates a salary cap,[14] set by the Premiership Rugby Board, specifying the money a club can spend on the player salaries of its squad per season. In the current 2016–17 season, the base salary cap is £6.5 million, with an "academy credit" of up to £600,000 (£75,000 per player for up to eight players). For 2017–18, the base cap will increase to £7 million and maximum academy credits to £800,000.

    A club may use the academy credit on a player that: (i) joined the club before his 18th birthday; (ii) is under age 24 at the start of the season; and (iii) earns a salary of more than £30,000. This means that, for example, a qualifying player who earns £80,000 carries a cap charge of only £5,000.


    From the 2015–16 season forward, each club may exclude two players from the cap calculations, an increase from one in prior seasons.

    The first "excluded player" slot can be filled by any player on a team's current roster who meets any of the following criteria:

    The second slot can only be filled by a player who had been outside the Premiership for at least one full season before signing his initial contract with his current Premiership club. For purposes of the exclusion rule, "initial contract" means the first contract signed for the 2015–16 season or later, meaning that a player who returned to a prior Premiership club after spending at least one full season outside the Premiership can qualify for the second slot.

    Media coverage

    In the United Kingdom, the rights are currently held by BT Sport under an £125m deal signed on 12 September 2012 to broadcast 69 live matches per season for three years from the 2013–14 season.[15] In Australia the Aviva Premiership is available on BeIN Sports Australia. Since the 2008/09 season there has been a highlights show on ITV4, repeated midweek on ITV. In the United States, the Aviva Premiership is available across NBC Sports since spring 2016.

    Talksport and BBC Radio 5 Live, along with various BBC Local Radio stations broadcast commentary and magazine programming.

    See also


    1. Premiership Rugby announce long term partnership with Aviva Premiership Rugby, 7 July 2010
    2. "Partners | Sky Sports". Premiership Rugby. 28 June 2012. Retrieved 31 July 2013.
    3. "Club History". London Scottish FC. 13 April 2013. Retrieved 19 April 2016.
    4. "Leicester livid as seasons spoils are left up for grabs". The Independent. 10 February 2001. Retrieved 28 January 2009.
    5. "History". Premiership Rugby. Retrieved 31 July 2013.
    6. "Premiership semi-final: Northampton 21-20 Leicester". BBC Sport. 16 May 2014. Retrieved 4 June 2014.
    7. "Premiership final: Saracens 20-24 Northampton Saints". BBC Sport. 31 May 2014. Retrieved 2 June 2014.
    8. "Aviva Premiership Final: Saracens 20 Northampton Saints 24". Premiership Rugby. 31 May 2014. Archived from the original on 3 June 2014. Retrieved 2 June 2014.
    9. 1 2 Dart, Tom (11 May 2013). "NFL joins plan aiming to create professional rugby union league in US". theguardian.com. Guardian Media. Retrieved 4 August 2013.
    10. Dart, Tom (5 June 2013). "US professional rugby union project delayed to 2014". theguardian.com. Guardian Media. Retrieved 4 August 2013.
    11. "America to host Aviva Premiership matches?". ESPN Scrum. 4 August 2013. Retrieved 4 August 2013.
    12. "London Irish to play Saracens in New York Premiership match". BBC Sport. 27 October 2015. Retrieved 27 October 2015.
    13. Mairs, Gavin (29 June 2012). "London Welsh to join Aviva Premiership after winning appeal against decision to deny them promotion". The Telegraph. Retrieved 31 July 2013.
    14. http://www.premiershiprugby.com/premiership/structure/salary_cap.php#.UQk3_mc4f1M
    15. Halliday, Josh (12 September 2012). "BT lands exclusive UK television rights to show live rugby union". theguardian.com. Guardian Media. Retrieved 12 September 2012.

    External links

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