How Jersey Reds transformed themselves into the Championship's most consistent club
Stability and consistency are not easily associated with the chaotic landscape of rugby union, so Harvey Biljon has every right to feel proud of his achievements at Jersey.
In January 2014, with nine games remaining in the Championship campaign, Jersey Reds were scrapping for their spot in the second tier. Biljon arrived from Cornish Pirates and helped to steer them to safety. They finished 11th, one point above the drop, thanks to a 41-31 victory in Bedford on the final day.
Ironically, it was Ealing Trailfinders that went down. Nine seasons on, the west London club sits top of the Championship table. They are unable to go up due to a continuing stalemate over Premiership’s minimum standards - a frustration which could lead them to breakaway from the English game altogether.
But they face a fight for the top spot anyway. Lurking six points behind them, with a game in hand, are Biljon’s Jersey.
Biljon progressed through the Natal Sharks’ age-grade system before being handed a trial at London Wasps by Nigel Melville on a chance trip to England. He scored a try in a midweek game against Cambridge in Sudbury and was offered a short-term deal. That turned into a six-year stint, decorated by silverware among giants of the sport.
“As a player, I did well but there was more to give'
Besides Melville, the scrum-half was overseen by Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Ian McGeechan at Wasps. That must have given him a strong grounding, and Biljon subsequently moved into coaching with Blackheath.
“As a player, I felt I did well but always felt there was more to give” he remembers. “I sat behind Matt Dawson and Rob Howley at Wasps, who were two of the best in the world. It wasn’t that there was unfinished business, but there was more to give back to a sport that had been everything to me.”
Next season, Biljon will pass a decade at Jersey and has the backing to develop the dynasty further given his lengthy contract runs until 2029. Already, though, his tenure has been notable for providing a leg-up to players, coaches and support staff.
Jersey Reds is renowned as a finishing school for front-rowers, with alumnus Alec Clarey recently having passed 50 Saracens appearances. Harry Williams, a 19-cap England international, previously represented the Channel Island team, as did capped hooker Nic Dolly. Lee-Roy Atalifo earned a shot at Edinburgh. Creative recruitment, you sense, is one of Biljon’s passions.
“You have to identify a player’s athletic ability and attitude,” he says. “Then you back yourselves as coaches to give someone with those raw materials the understanding and awareness. That way, they can embrace the challenges you give them. We’ve always had a small squad, so players get game-time.
If they get good coaching and support, they will maximise their potential and hopefully get opportunities to kick on upwards while contributing to the team doing well.”
Kieran Hardy, who made his Wales debut two years after a spell with Jersey, is cited as one of Biljon’s memorable coups. He had been watching Carmarthen Quins, and actually scouting a different player, when the sparky scrum-half caught his eye. When Biljon travelled to watch Hardy initially, the latter had been rotated out of the side.
Kyle Hatherell also owes a life-changing opportunity to Jersey. The hard-hitting back-rower will join Leicester Tigers next year, having linked up with La Rochelle after the collapse of Worcester.
Biljon spotted him in the second division of the Scottish club scene with Marr. “Was he getting everything right? No,” Biljon says of Hatherell. “Was he man-handling people? Yes”. Worth a punt, then.
Biljon has a trusted network of informants and puts in the hours himself.
“Don’t get me wrong, I won’t watch every single National League game, but people are going to be missed by academies or go to university,” explains the 45 year-old. “Everyone finds their route in different ways. Going to study for three years does not mean that they don’t have a desire to learn and excel in the rugby.
“I mean this in the most respectful way; sometimes the penny doesn’t drop at 19. For forwards, it might at 24 when a player is physically and mentally more mature and certain things start to make sense. Backs can be different because you can’t coach speed.”
Roy Godfrey, a dynamic prop who captained Jersey after arriving from Wimbledon in the fifth tier, is another flagship recruit and the theme of using Biljon’s set-up as a launchpad extends beyond the playing squad. Steve Boden, a former Jersey assistant, is head coach of Doncaster. Alex Rae is the main man at Coventry. Ed Robinson was seconded from Jersey directly to England by Eddie Jones. Jim Molony is now Benetton’s head of conditioning.
'The RFU has an opportunity to get things right'
Biljon graduated from head coach to director of rugby in 2019. Put simply, he has been a highly productive figure for the sport. Asked to propose a quick fix for the English system, he would choose more funding for the Championship to lessen the disparity between the top two divisions and increase playing opportunities.
“There are so many talented players out there at the moment,” Biljon says. “The Premiership coaches that have experienced the Championship – Rob Baxter, Mark McCall – respect the Championship and the players in the competition. They recognise that there are things going on there. The RFU now has an opportunity to get things right.
“We could look at different structures, but they need to find that balance between supporting it financially and getting buy-in from clubs. There’s so much more to come. If the Championship is funded in the right way then the criteria question [over promotion to the Premiership] would not get in the way. The criteria would match the product and where a club deserves to be.”
Returning to this season, Jersey are masters of their own destiny. Keep winning and they should finish as champions, with a home fixture against Ealing on April 22 looming large. Rob Webber’s second campaign as head coach has been defined by problem-solving in tight matches. Wing Will Brown is among the league’s top scorers, with 10 tries.
As for Biljon, he remains ambitious; both from an individual standpoint and for Jersey as a collective. Promotion is off the cards this year because they did not apply for consideration. Biljon, though, has been offered a role in the United Rugby Championship in the past and wants to break into the top flight himself.
“Coaching opportunities are few and far between in the Premiership,” he finishes. “The club here want to drive forward and consider what their next steps look like. And, if Premiership opportunities are few and far between, the only other way that I can go to the next level is getting Jersey Reds up.
“I would 100 per cent want to be considered for Premiership roles and if I continue to push, hopefully those opportunities will present themselves. But Jersey are on a new path, with great support from the chairman and the board. I would say ‘watch this space’, because Jersey is on the rugby map.
“We’re exceeding expectations with limited resources but if we can get our infrastructure right according to the RFU’s criteria, I think we will earn the right. We are a positive story because we are not overspending. You can be an elite rugby team that holds onto the traditional values of the game and I think we are finding that balance.”
Almost nine-and-a-half years since his arrival at Jersey, with an impressive body of work behind him in a tough field, Biljon has an intriguing future ahead.