Premiership Rugby (officially known as Aviva Premiership Rugby, or the Aviva Premiership until 2018 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 Exeter Chiefs. The most recently promoted side is London Irish, who returned to the top flight in 2017.


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] This match was intended to be the first of a three-year deal which would have seen London Irish play one home match each season in the USA, but their relegation from the Premiership at the end of the 2015–16 season scuttled that plan.[13] A new deal was reached with American sports marketing company AEG in 2017 which will see at least one Premiership match taken to the USA for four seasons starting in 2017–18. The first match under the new deal was held on 16 September 2017, with Newcastle Falcons taking their home fixture with Saracens to Talen Energy Stadium in the Philadelphia suburb of Chester, Pennsylvania.[13]


Current clubs

English Premiership clubs
Club Established City Stadium Capacity Titles (Last)
Bath 1865 Bath The Recreation Ground 14,500 6 (1996)
Exeter Chiefs 1871 Exeter Sandy Park 12,800 1 (2017)
Gloucester 1873 Gloucester Kingsholm Stadium 16,500 0 (N/A)
Harlequins 1866 London (Twickenham) Twickenham Stoop 14,800 1 (2012)
Leicester Tigers 1880 Leicester Welford Road 25,800 10 (2013)
London Irish 1898 Reading Madejski Stadium 24,161 0 (N/A)
Newcastle Falcons 1877 Newcastle upon Tyne Kingston Park 10,200 1 (1998)
Northampton Saints 1880 Northampton Franklin's Gardens 15,500 1 (2014)
Sale Sharks 1861 Barton-upon-Irwell AJ Bell Stadium 12,000 1 (2006)
Saracens 1876 London (Hendon) Allianz Park 10,000 3 (2016)
Wasps 1867 Coventry Ricoh Arena 32,600 6 (2008)
Worcester Warriors 1871 Worcester Sixways Stadium 12,024 0 (N/A)
  • Note: Capacity listed for rugby union games may differ from official stadium capacity

All time

A total of 28 clubs have been involved in the top-flight since the league's inception in the 1987–88 season. The most recent club to make its debut in the Premiership was London Welsh, which made their top flight 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 2017–18 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
31 Bath 1988–2018
20 Bristol Rugby 1988-1998, 2000-2003, 2006–2009, 2017
3 Bedford 1990, 1999–2000
1 Coventry 1988
8 Exeter 2011–2018
31 Gloucester 1988–2018
30 Harlequins 1988–2005, 2007–2018
8 Leeds* 2002–2006, 2008, 2010–2011
31 Leicester 1988–2018
2 Liverpool St Helens 1989, 1991
24 London Irish 1992–1994, 1997–2016, 2018
2 London Scottish 1993, 1999
2 London Welsh 2013, 2015
4 Moseley 1988–1992
21 Newcastle 1994, 1998–2012, 2014–2018
26 Northampton 1991–1995, 1997–2007, 2009–2018
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
25 Sale 1988, 1995–2018
27 Saracens 1990–1993, 1996–2018
31 Wasps 1988–2018
2 Waterloo 1988–1989
5 West Hartlepool 1993, 1995–1997, 1999
12 Worcester 2005–2010, 2012–2014, 2016–2018

* Note: Leeds are now known as Yorkshire Carnegie, but were known as Leeds for all their time in the Premiership.



There are 12 full-time referees appointed by the RFU.[14] The elite match official squad is run by ex-international referee Tony Spreadbury, formerly of Somerset Rugby Referees Society.

  • Wayne Barnes
  • Matt Carley
  • JP Doyle
  • Tom Foley
  • Greg Garner
  • Craig Maxwell-Keys
  • Greg McDonald
  • Luke Pearce
  • Dean Richards
  • Andrew Small
  • Ian Tempest
  • Tim Wigglesworth

They are supported by a large team of assistant referees.

Regular season

The 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:

  • 4 points are awarded for a win
  • 2 points are awarded for a draw
  • 0 points are awarded for a loss, however
    • 1 losing (bonus) point is awarded to a team that loses a match by 7 points or fewer
  • 1 additional (bonus) point is awarded to a team scoring 4 tries or more in a match


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 Premiership. The last placed club after the 22 regular season rounds of the Premiership is relegated into the RFU Championship. Through the 2016–17 season, the winner of the Championship play-offs was promoted to the Premiership for the subsequent season; the Championship play-offs were then scrapped and replaced by automatic promotion for the top club on the final Championship table.[15] However, promotion and relegation (regardless of the format used) are subject to Minimum Standards Criteria. If the winner of the play-offs or, from 2017–18, the team topping the Championship table, 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.[16]

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 players expected to be active in the 2017–18 Premiership.

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

Last updated 29 May 2017



Rank Player Club(s) Years Apps
1 England Steve Borthwick Bath, Saracens 1998–2014 265
2 England George Chuter Saracens, Leicester 1997–2014 262
England Phil Dowson Newcastle, Northampton, Worcester 2001–2017
4 England Charlie Hodgson Sale, Saracens 2000–2016 254
5 England Tom May Newcastle, Northampton, London Welsh 1999–2015 247
6 England Hugh Vyvyan Newcastle, Saracens 1998–2012 245
7 England Richard Wigglesworth Sale, Saracens 2002– 244
8 England Simon Shaw Bristol, Wasps 1997–2011 237
9 England Andy Goode Leicester, Saracens, Worcester, Wasps, Newcastle 1998–2016 236
10 England Stuart Hooper Saracens, Leeds, Bath 2000–2016 232



Rank Player Club(s) Years Points
1 England Charlie Hodgson Sale, Saracens 2000–2016 2,623
2 England Andy Goode Leicester, Saracens, Worcester, Wasps, Newcastle 1998–2016 2,285
3 New Zealand Nick Evans Harlequins 2008–2017 1,656
4 England Stephen Myler Northampton 2006– 1,648
5 England Olly Barkley Bath, Gloucester, London Welsh 2001–2015 1,605
6 England Jonny Wilkinson Newcastle 1997–2008 1,489
7 Ireland Gareth Steenson Exeter 2010– 1,286
8 Ireland Barry Everitt London Irish, Northampton 2000–2010 1,267
9 England Tim Stimpson Newcastle, Leicester, Leeds 1997–2005 1,243
10 England Paul Grayson Northampton 1997–2005 1,238



Rank Player Club(s) Years Tries
1 England Tom Varndell Leicester, Wasps, Bristol 2004–2017 93
2 England Mark Cueto Sale 2001–2015 90
3 England Chris Ashton Northampton, Saracens 2008–2017 80
4 England Christian Wade Wasps 2011– 76
5 England Steve Hanley Sale 1998–2007 75
6 England Paul Sackey Bedford, London Irish, Wasps, Harlequins 1999–2014 68
7 England Tom Voyce Bath, Wasps, Gloucester, London Welsh 2000–2013 66
8 England James Simpson-Daniel Gloucester 2000–2013 63
9 England Neil Back Leicester 1997–2005 59
10 England Ben Cohen Northampton, Sale 1997–2011 58


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. Each season at least one team has been relegated at the end of the season, although occasionally teams are given a reprieve due to external factors e.g. promotion criteria.

Season Teams Premiership Final Information League Winners Relegated Sponsor
Winners Score Runners-up
12 - - - Leicester Tigers Sale, Coventry Courage Brewery
12 - - - Bath Liverpool St Helens, Waterloo
12 - - - London Wasps Bedford
13 - - - Bath Liverpool St Helens, Moseley
13 - - - Bath Rosslyn Park, Nottingham
13 - - - Bath Rugby Lions, West Hartlepool,
Saracens, London Scottish
10 - - - Bath Newcastle Gosworth, London Irish
10 - - - Leicester Tigers Northampton Saints
10 - - - Bath No relegation
12 - - - London Wasps West Hartlepool, Orrell
12 - - - Newcastle Falcons Bristol Allied Dunbar
14 - - - Leicester Tigers West Hartlepool
12 - - - Leicester Tigers Bedford Blues
12 - - - Leicester Tigers Rotherham Zurich
12 - - - Leicester Tigers No relegation
12 London Wasps 39–3 Gloucester Gloucester Bristol
12 London Wasps 10–6 Bath Bath Rotherham Titans
12 London Wasps 39–14 Leicester Tigers Leicester Tigers Harlequins
12 Sale Sharks 45–20 Leicester Tigers Sale Sharks Leeds Tykes Guinness
12 Leicester Tigers 44–16 Gloucester Gloucester Northampton Saints
12 London Wasps 26–16 Leicester Tigers Gloucester Leeds Carnegie
12 Leicester Tigers 10–9 London Irish Leicester Tigers Bristol
12 Leicester Tigers 33–27 Saracens Leicester Tigers Worcester Warriors
12 Saracens 22–18 Leicester Tigers Leicester Tigers Leeds Carnegie Aviva*
12 Harlequins 30–23 Leicester Tigers Harlequins Newcastle Falcons
12 Leicester Tigers 37–17 Northampton Saints Saracens London Welsh
12 Northampton Saints 24–20
Saracens Saracens Worcester Warriors
12 Saracens 28–16 Bath Northampton Saints London Welsh
12 Saracens 28–20 Exeter Chiefs Saracens London Irish
12 Exeter Chiefs 23–20
Wasps Wasps Bristol

* Contract lasts until the end of the 2017-18 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
9 Exeter Chiefs 1 2016–17


Season Total Average
2002–03 1,183,972 8,518
2003–04 1,241,557 9,062
2004–05 1,481,355 10,813
2005–06 1,483,920 10,922
2006–07 1,598,734 11,842
2007–08 1,517,863 11,243
2008–09 1,671,781 12,384
2009–10 1,900,177 14,075
2010–11 1,740,751 12,894
2011–12 1,755,073 13,001
2012–13 1,684,804 12,480
2013–14 1,721,729 12,754
2014–15 1,804,914 13,370
2015–16 1,837,427 13,611
2016–17 2,033,805 15,065

Salary cap

The English Premiership operates a salary cap,[20] 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 2017–18 season, the base cap is £7 million, with an "academy credit" of up to £800,000 (£100,000 per player for up to eight players).

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. Under the credit scheme, the first £100,000 of a qualifying player's salary is not counted against the cap.


Since the 2015–16 season, each club has been allowed to 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:

  • Played with his Premiership club for at least two full seasons before he was nominated as an excluded player.
  • Played with his Premiership club for the full season before being nominated as an excluded player, after having played outside the Premiership.
  • Played outside the Premiership in the season before he was nominated.

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 main rights are currently held by BT Sport under a new deal signed on 16 March 2015 replacing the former £152m deal signed on 12 September 2012. The new deal sees BT broadcast up to 80 live matches per season until the end of the 2020–21 season along with extended highlights of all matches and midweek programming.[21][22] UK rights are also held by Channel 5 who will simulcast 5 matches live on a free-to-air basis, with a different commentary team as opposed to BT's commentary team, and also show a weekly highlights programme through the duration of BT's deal.[23] In Australia the Premiership is available on beIN Sports. In the United States, the Premiership is available across NBC Sports since spring 2016. It will also be broadcast in China from 2017.

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

See also


  1. ^ "Aviva extends Premiership Rugby title sponsorship". Aviva plc. Aviva plc. Retrieved 3 August 2017. 
  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. ^ a b 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. ^ a b Pengelly, Martin (17 May 2017). "Saracens to face Newcastle in Philadelphia under four-year US deal". Theguardian.com. Retrieved 22 May 2017. 
  14. ^ https://www.premiershiprugby.com/referees/
  15. ^ "Play-off system removed from Greene King IPA Championship from next season" (Press release). Premiership Rugby Limited. 3 March 2017. Retrieved 4 March 2017. 
  16. ^ 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. 
  17. ^ "Most Matches". ESPNscrum. Retrieved 29 May 2017. 
  18. ^ "Most Points". ESPNscrum. Retrieved 29 May 2017. 
  19. ^ "Most tries". ESPNscrum. Retrieved 8 January 2018. 
  20. ^ http://www.premiershiprugby.com/premiership/structure/salary_cap.php#.UQk3_mc4f1M
  21. ^ Halliday, Josh (12 September 2012). "BT lands exclusive UK television rights to show live rugby union". theguardian.com. Guardian Media. Retrieved 12 September 2012. 
  22. ^ "BT Sport extends Aviva Premiership rugby rights until 2021". BT Sport. British Telecom PLC. Retrieved 16 March 2015. 
  23. ^ "Channel 5 to show live Premiership match for the first time on terrestrial TV". The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Ltd. Retrieved 4 May 2017. 

External links