Greene King Championship
London Scottish (13) v Newcastle Falcons (17)
The Athletic Ground
Saturday October 12,2019
The 2019/20 Greene King Championship season kicked off this weekend, though you would have been forgiven for not noticing. Probably something to do with a World Cup taking place on the other side of the world.
Nevertheless, over a thousand people turned out in the pouring rain at The Athletic Ground in Richmond to watch London Scottish open their season against Newcastle Falcons. Relegated last season, the Falcons are clear favourites to regain their place in the Premiership.
Newcastle got their Championship campaign off to a winning start, but it was a far from the dominant display expected of the relegated side. They owed what dominance they had to their veteran ex-England man Toby Flood, who was named man-of-the match. He used his nous and kicking abilities to keep Scottish pinned in their half in the atrocious conditions for much of the game, as well as landing two conversions and a penalty.
“Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.” Benjamin Disraeli was writing about the rich and the poor, but his words could also apply to the gulf that has grown between the Premiership and the Championship.
The Athletic round, a facility that looks pretty much as it did in the days before rugby union went open, a refuge for fans rather than corporates with the game itself the draw.
Has there ever been a greater contrast between two clubs in the second tier of English club rugby? In the one corner stood Newcastle Falcons, armed with a fully professional squad and a management team high on international experience. In the other was London Scottish, a club made up of players who were mainly part-time. Newcastle can look forward to an income of between £6m and £8m next season, assuming they return to the big time, on top of the money they will receive from CVC as part of the private equity company’s 27% stake in the Premiership. The Exiles, in contrast, just have the annual £570,000 the Rugby Football Union pays to a Championship club.
Do Scottish aim for a return to the Championship, or do they remain at the level below, serving the community and providing rugby for players no matter how good they are? Twenty years ago the professional arm of London Scottish, , and that of Richmond (with whom they ground-share) was taken over by London Irish and they had to start again at the bottom of the league pyramid..
The Premiership clubs want the topflight to be increased to 13 clubs, the number who will receive the CVC lump sum. Some want promotion and relegation to be suspended because of the financial divide between the two divisions, while others are open to the idea of a play-off.
There are few clubs in the Championship with ambitions of emulating Exeter. It would cost them too much, both up front and down the line, as the examples of Rotherham and London Welsh show.
Ealing Trailfinders and Cornish Pirates, who are due to move into their new stadium next season, are exceptions, but the cost of membership of the Premiership will only keep going up.
it raises an urgent question: what exactly is the Championship’s raison d’etre?
There are all sorts of issues for players operating beneath the Premiership: poor salaries, insufficient medical insurance, no union assistance in negotiating fairer contracts. Several clubs are creaking.
Something has to give. While the Premiership salary cap has risen – the base level is £6.5m per club with an allowance for two extra “marquee” players on top – Championship clubs receive £530,000 in central funding per annum. A fully-professional squad of 35 pro players at a basic £30,000 apiece – not enough to buy an open-air potting shed in Richmond – costs double that.
If the whole league goes semi-pro will the gap with the Premiership become too cavernous? Might it lead to a closed shop with no promotion or relegation?
Nobody, least of all the RFU, seems to know