The Championship cannot become invisible - it is more important to English rugby than ever

·6-min read
Emmanuel Iyogun - The Championship cannot become invisible – it is more important to English rugby than ever - Claire Jones
Emmanuel Iyogun - The Championship cannot become invisible – it is more important to English rugby than ever - Claire Jones

Whether or not he gets picked in England’s squad for the autumn internationals next Monday, Mark Atkinson has already become a shining success story of the Championship.

Should he win a Test cap at some stage in November, there is a fine piece of pub ammunition about the 31-year-old Gloucester centre to keep in your back pocket.

Before impressing for Bedford Blues, shifting to the number 12 shirt and earning a Premiership move, Atkinson was relegated from the second tier twice. After going down with Sedgley Park in 2009, he “guided” Esher to the drop as a “garbage” fly-half three years later.

Atkinson volunteered this titbit at the start of his recent interview for the Championship Clubs podcast. Ben Gulliver, one of the production’s co-hosts, amassed over 300 appearances in the league for five different clubs either side of spells in the Premiership with Leicester Tigers and Worcester.

The ex-lock is now a sales executive for Roger Young Land Rover who coaches Ivybridge Ladies with his wife, Georgie. He represented Coventry, Plymouth Albion, Cornish Pirates, Bedford – with Atkinson – and Ampthill until stepping away from playing in 2018.

Mark Atkinson in action for Bedford against Nottingham in 2013 - Getty Images
Mark Atkinson in action for Bedford against Nottingham in 2013 - Getty Images

Although the spotlight of national coverage has swung away from the Championship with Saracens’ return to the Premiership, Gulliver is one of many keen on promoting the competition. And with good reason.

Remarkably, with four rounds played this season, the top 10 Championship clubs are separated by two points. You could not so much throw a blanket over them as conceal them with a flannel.

Ealing Trailfinders, red-hot favourites for promotion to the Premiership, have lost to Cornish Pirates as Saracens did last year. Everyone except London Scottish has registered two victories.

“The tightness of the league is brilliant,” Gulliver says. “There are some great rivalries and traditions.

“I know Harlequins had that amazing game on Friday night but there were 2,000 up in Ampthill watching them play against Bedford.

“That’s a good fan base and the league has delivered these stories – as well as being a great pathway for players, coaches and referees – since I’ve been playing in it. It has value… just maybe not with the right people.”

That Bedfordshire derby Gulliver mentions was a treat for those in attendance at Dillingham Park. The visitors ousted Ampthill, emerging on the right side of a 53-34 scoreline in a contest featuring 12 tries.

One of these was scored by Bedford loosehead prop Emmanuel Iyogun, on loan from Northampton Saints. Two more, as well as other free-wheeling efforts from around the league, were posted on social media to widespread excitement and calls for free-to-air television exposure.

Gulliver, previously a teammate of Nick Isiekwe and Ben Earl at Ampthill, stresses that the Championship is not just about developing prospective England internationals like those Saracens tyros and Tom Youngs. With the right attitude, any player can “learn about different sides of professionalism and become an adult”.

Atkinson echoed this, and made other salient points besides. He highlighted talented Gloucester full-back Kyle Moyle, who arrived at Kingsholm from Cornish Pirates, as the sort of recruit to embody the squeeze on middle-earners across the Premiership.

Kyle Moyle - Getty Images
Kyle Moyle - Getty Images

Lee Blackett of Wasps, previously Rotherham head coach, clearly keeps an eye on the Championship. He brought in Robin ‘Bomber’ Hislop from Doncaster Knights in May. The loosehead prop promptly won a Scotland call-up.

“The boys on massive money are still going to be on massive money regardless,” Atkinson told the Championship Clubs podcast. “They’re the ones who bring in the crowds.

“Say, for instance, Charles Piutau and Semi Radradra go and then [the Premiership] goes to do another deal with BT Sport.

“BT Sport would turn around and say: ‘Why would we give you more money when you’ve let go the stars that people want to pay their subscription fees for.

“It will be the middle-ground that gets squeezed out and clubs will need to prop that up with good players who aren’t asking the world.”

On the subject of broadcast deals, the Championship could do with one to mitigate central funding cuts that have seen each club go from receiving £550,000 to picking up around £160,000 per season.

Comparisons with France are difficult for a number of reasons, but it is telling that Canal Plus are paying €8m per season for exclusive coverage of Pro D2. Footage of wonder-tries and crazy incidents are quickly clipped up and posted, which has helped to build a cult following around the world. There is little danger of Pro D2 being neglected.

Ben Gulliver - Getty Images
Ben Gulliver - Getty Images

In England, competition infrastructure below the Premiership has seemed slapdash for some time. Gulliver remembers a brief experience of the A League just over a decade ago.

“I made my A League debut for Leicester at the age of 29 after playing for Pirates a long time,” he says.

“Our backline had George Ford, Manu Tuilagi, Horacio Agulla and Billy Twelvetrees in it… and we lost, somehow. There were a few people in at Welford Road and it felt like it had some value.

“The next week, I went up to Newcastle with a load of guys that had come in from Loughborough Uni. I thought: ‘I’m too old for this s---. What am I getting out of this apart from ticking a box for somebody?’”

The hope is that an ongoing strategic review of the Championship, led by Conor O’Shea, the RFU’s director of performance rugby, provides a stable route ahead in matters of governance, format and finance.

Telegraph Sport understands that meetings are addressing a broadcast deal and free-to-air options among all possible commercial income streams. However, one source close to the review warned that “there is a lot of work to do before Christmas” with recommendations due for the RFU board and council in the New Year.

Until then, it seems as though it will be down to Atkinson, Gulliver and the rugby itself to do the talking.

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