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‘There isn’t a plan’: frustration and defiance in rugby’s Championship

Almost everyone in English club rugby is agreed on one thing. It cannot go on like this. The system, if that is the right word for the teetering pile of Jenga bricks supporting a cash-strapped 10-team Premiership, is broken and a scheduled eight-year agreement between the Rugby Football Union and the leading club owners is seen as the much-needed long-term answer.

Which is fine – except for one fundamental detail. It does little, as things stand, for anybody else. Talk to people in the second-tier Championship and there is frustration, defiance and gallows humour in roughly equal parts after years of dwindling funds and central support. As Mark Lavery, director of rugby of second-placed Ampthill, puts it: “We’ve taken all the money out of the foundations, put it into the roof and now we’re wondering why the foundations are shaking.”

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Not far away in Bedford, the nation’s longest-serving director of rugby, Mike Rayer, also feels there is a lack of appreciation in certain quarters for the work the Championship clubs – and the national leagues beneath them – do to nurture young players, coaches, referees and communities across the land. “No one’s really grasped hold of the Championship since before Covid,” says Rayer. “It’s just been left in the corner to fight for itself. There’s some really good stuff going on and some really good players in the Championship.”

As with local newspapers and county cricket, however, heritage and good intentions are not the safe shields they once were. Money is finite and there are multiplying mouths to feed. In the eyes of many including Lavery, the boss of a leading car retail group, the sport requires a whole game solution rather than one for only a protected few. “The RFU seem to have a fundamentally different view of the world based on a closed shop at the top level. For everything else below that, there doesn’t appear to be a plan. And yet we want to increase the amount of money paid to PRL? Talk me through that one. It’s the economics of the madhouse.”

All this cuts to the heart of English rugby’s future. Rather than cosying up to a handful of debt-laden Premiership clubs, isn’t the RFU – checks notes – supposed to be a members’ organisation charged with sustaining the game at all levels? On Tuesday there were further collective talks but as yet no transformative central funding is on the horizon.

In a statement last week the Championship had already formally rejected the idea of a “Premiership 2” franchise league, which it believes would not be meritocratic and would essentially reduce it to “farm” club status. It means the uncertainty rumbles on. “Premiership 2 indicates an umbilical cord which isn’t there because they’ve done a private transaction we’re not involved in,” said Simon Halliday, chairman of the Championship committee. “We’ve been told countless times ‘We haven’t got any money’. Let’s rephrase that. They don’t want to allocate it to us.”

All this is in marked contrast to France where ProD2, the league below the Top 14, goes from strength to strength. Municipally owned stadiums and a more lucrative television deal clearly help but the difference is still stark. In England even the top Premiership clubs are seeking to renegotiate their Covid loans while the demise of last year’s Championship winners, Jersey, further underlined the precarious nature of rugby’s financial landscape.

So what should the future look like? Part of the problem is there are more different visions than a busy branch of Specsavers. Some clubs are ambitious, others exist largely in survival mode. Ampthill are second in the league behind Ealing Trailfinders but without promotion or relegation, or a home ground that satisfies the minimum standards criteria, what else is there to aim for? “We set off 18 years ago and said we’d get into the Championship,” says Lavery. “At that point we were at level 7. We got five promotions in 12 years but now we’ve hit a glass ceiling.”

Their central funding has also shrunk massively, from £680,000 in their first season down to £90,000 once medical expenses are settled. Ampthill have a tie-up with Saracens and several England players – Ben Earl, Alex Mitchell, Theo Dan and Freddie Steward – have worn the club’s jersey. What they really want, though, is the chance to become the best club Ampthill can possibly be. “It wasn’t that long ago that Saracens were playing on a park in north London,” says Lavery. “I know because I went down there and watched them.”

Rich Lane scores a try

A healthy player pathway, with set numbers of English-qualified academy players receiving more game time, has to be a key ingredient. In Bedford it has not escaped Rayer’s attention that the ex-Blues full-back Rich Lane scored three tries for Bristol against Exeter this month. “There are still aspirational players in and around the Championship who could master it in the Premiership,” said Rayer, who won 21 caps for Wales and has been in charge at Goldington Road for 18 years. “We’re also accessible. Players can rub shoulders with the supporters … you see the real human side of the game. That’s the beauty of us. But it can’t totally become a development league. We all needed to learn the game through playing with good and experienced players. You can’t lose sight of that.”

On top of that, Championship sides are used to being resourceful. “We’re running a sustainable business … unlike the Premiership we’re not losing millions of pounds,” says Rayer, also adamant that promotion and relegation remains vital for the England senior team. “We’ve got to fight for promotion and relegation. International rugby is all about the result at the end of the day. How do you prepare for that if you lose 12 or 15 games a year and it doesn’t matter?”

Lavery agrees with him. “When you consider the drop in attendances, the drop in participation and the risks involved in playing the sport, we seem to be fixated on something that makes the sport less entertaining because there’s no jeopardy.” Halliday, though, does not envisage a rethink. “The game, whether it likes it or not, needs to understand the barriers to entry are not coming down any time soon. The only way to close that gap is to help to bridge it from the bottom up.”

Many still feel the rejected Championship blueprint put together by Edward Griffiths more than three years ago contained some good ideas but Halliday believes a viable structure can eventually emerge. “It’ll just take longer because of the hand we’ve been dealt. You can’t undo the past but you can learn from it. We all want to find a solution. We want to be the best possible pathway for the young players of tomorrow. We need to commercialise who we are, which we haven’t done for years. And we have to improve our standards.

“I share the RFU’s vision that we can’t just carry on in the same way. It’s a huge challenge because of the years of underinvestment in this group of clubs. You reap what you sow … I think we will suffer for years to come because of some of the decisions that have been made. But I don’t run the RFU. All I’m trying to do is make sure our clubs can manage their own destiny. Their value should be recognised and I want that respect. Let no one turn round and say our clubs aren’t ambitious. They’re ambitious as hell.”