History of Premiership Rugby

History of Premiership Rugby

Rugby Premiership history is really tied in with the professional era of the sport taking flight. The sport turned fully professional the season before the Premiership was introduced in 1997.

With big sponsorship deals creating the likes of the Allied Dunbar Premiership, the Guinness Premiership and the Gallagher Premiership, it helped to drive the game forward into a new era.

The pre-Premiership years

The years preceding the Premiership saw the formation of the Courage Leagues in 1987. This was the first time that rugby had formed a league system including promotion and relegation.

It wasn’t until the start of the 1996/97 season that the sport turned away from its amateur ethos and roots to turn pro. It was the Wasps who won the title in that first season of professional rugby, which was also the final season of the Courage Leagues as the inaugural Premiership season followed.

Twelve teams took part in the first Premiership Rugby campaign in the 1997/98 season. The set up was based on the rollover from the previous season’s National League campaigns.

West Hartlepool and Orrell had been relegated from National Division 1. Richmond and the Newcastle Falcons moved up from National Division 2 to join.

Original 12 Premiership Rugby teams

  • Bath
  • Bristol
  • Gloucester
  • Harlequins
  • Leicester Tigers
  • London Irish
  • Newcastle Falcons
  • Northampton Saints
  • Richmond
  • Sale
  • Saracens
  • Wasps

The first Premiership season

The Newcastle Falcons created Rugby Premiership history by winning the league title by a single-point over Saracens. The Falcons boasted some Premiership greats on their side as well, such as Jonny Wilkinson, Rob Andrew, Doddie Weir and Tony Underwood.

The first Premiership Rugby season was played in a full round robin format, with teams playing everyone else home and away.

There was a relegation play-off, with the bottom two in the Premiership taking on the 3rd and 4th place finishers from what was then the Premiership Two. Bristol, who had only won two matches all season, were relegated while the London Irish hung on to their top-flight status.

The following season, the league expanded to 14 teams. This expanded top flight lasted only one season.

Periods of dominance

The Leicester Tigers were the first dominant force in Premiership Rugby. Following Newcastle taking the first title of the new Premiership, it was to be all Leicester for the next four seasons. They were the ones to beat with four domestic titles in a row between 1999 and 2002. The Tigers also won the Heineken Cup twice during this period.

At one stage during their Premiership history, the Tigers would reach nine consecutive Premiership finals. Leicester player Tom Varndell set a Premiership rugby record of 92 tries during his career.

The Wasps won three titles in a row between 2003 and 2005 and would go on to add to that, just as Leicester would boost their tally after their early successes. Saracens claimed the Premiership title four times in five seasons beginning in 2015. This includes the first Gallagher Premiership title in 2018.

After only earning promotion to the top flight in 2010, Exeter was crowned as the English champion for the first time in 2017 with a victory over the Wasps.

Key points in the Rugby Premiership history timeline

  • 1997/98 – Premiership Rugby era begins one season after the sport turns pro
  • 1999/00 – Points for a win increased from 2 to 3 points, yellow cards introduced
  • 2000/01 – Bonus points system introduced
  • 2002/03 – First Premiership Rugby final – Wasps beat Gloucester
  • 2005/06 – Four-team play-off system introduced to decide champion

The first Premiership final

The first Premiership final took place at the conclusion of the 2002/03 season when finishing at the top of the table no longer guaranteed the title.

Gloucester had topped the regular season table to reach the final. The second place Wasps met the Northampton Saints in a semi-final to see who would face Gloucester at Twickenham. It was to be the Wasps, who in turn beat Gloucester to the title.

A few seasons later in the 2005/06 season, the play-offs were expanded to the top four teams. The first team would play the fourth and the second would play the third in semi-final matches, the two match winners then met at Twickenham for the final.

Premiership Rugby history continues to write itself

The sport has come a long way since making the transition from an amateur to a professional game. Rules change, personnel come and go, players write themselves into the list of records, old forces fade and new ones emerge as the enthralling Premiership Rugby history continues to be written.

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