RFU Championship – The lessons from London Welsh

All the media attention may be on the Six Nations, but I am looking forward to hearing how the RFU plans to revitalise the Championship.Somehow, the wealthiest national governing body in world rugby has allowed its second-tier competition to sink into disrepair.

Compared to the Premiership, it’s a veritable slum. There are reports of players not only earning well below the living wage, but also having to cover their own medical expenses.Many of these players have chosen to abandon the game. Others didn’t even get that choice. A fortnight ago London Welsh was expunged from the league – and possibly the history books – after Twickenham declared the club’s financial position to be “untenable”.

Sickeningly, the historic side’s one major misstep was in becoming too successful. Promotion to the top flight in 2012 saw them forced to abandon Old Deer Park, their spiritual home, for an industrial estate near Oxford. There they had the 10,000 seats as required by Premiership Rugby. Unfortunately, the bums needed to fill them remained back in Richmond.

The subsequent three seasons saw the Exiles relegated, promoted again and relegated again. This yo-yoing caused such a bout of the bends that they failed to score a single win during the length of the 2014/15 season. Worse, a host of hasty, stop-the-rot signings left them with a mountain of unresolved debts.

The rest is history; London Welsh are now history.

And with terminal failure so closely entwined with fleeting success, who would now want to take up the poisoned chalice of promotion? Perhaps that’s the gist of the RFU’s imminent reveal: a Premiership ring-fenced for the safety of all.

It’s easy to point accusatory fingers at Twickers, but it’s not fair. They can’t be expected to bankroll “untenable” enterprises. Like it or not, professional rugby is a business: it’s sink or swim, and only the fittest survive.

So perhaps we should just let nature take its course. Perhaps rugby in England just isn’t big enough to support two tiers of professionalism.

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

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Richmond face a season of struggle

Saturday September 3 2016

Richmond v Jersey

@ Richmond Athletic Ground

Greene King IPA Championship

Round 1

Richmond…….16

Jersey………….41

Apparently there were 47,029 at the London Double Header at Twickenham on Saturday. There were somewhat fewer – 893 – at the Richmond Athletic Ground to see Richmond take on Jersey on the season’s opener of the rather grandly named Greene King IPA Championship.

It was quite an achievement for Richmond even to be competing at this level, for the story of Richmond RFC in recent years reads as one of the most eye-catching comebacks in any sport.

When rugby union went professional in 1995 Richmond were a third division club. They were bought by financial markets trader Ashley Levett, who turned them into a professional team and imported some big names via his cheque book. Ben Clarke from Bath was the first £1million rugby signing. The club even switched grounds to the Madejski in Reading.

By 1999 Levett had had enough of watching his money disappear and got out, virtually overnight. The professional Richmond club and London Scottish were both forcibly merged into London Irish. This period of considerable uncertainty resulted in many of the professional players leaving the club pre-merger. And so the amateur club was reformed in 2000, and they joined the leagues as an amateur club at the bottom of the pyramid. The club climbed through the leagues until the end of the 2015 /16 season, when they achieved a further promotion into the Greene King IPA Championship.

However, they start 2016/17 as most pundits favourites for relegation. All the players are part-time, and survival is the number one aim. But their captain, Will Warden, has been quoted as saying: “I’m not scared of going out and losing 22 games. I’m scared of going out there and losing the club we have got.”

Richmond began their campaign at home to Jersey, a club content it seems to dwell in mid-table safety. So a 41-16 reversal at home might point to a tough season for Richmond. The London side held their own in the first half but could not force a way over the Jersey line. Rob Kirby’s three penalties were all they had to show for their efforts, while Jersey made the best of the little possession they had with two tries. Richmond trailed only 10-9 at the break, but Jersey were far more accurate in the second half and five more tries sealed a bonus-point win.

Richmond boss Steve Hill was adamant his side belonged in tier two. “We were very competitive and we didn’t look like we shouldn’t be in this league “he said afterwards.

But you do wonder if by staying semi-professional Richmond have already condemned themselves to an early return to National league 1.

 

Relegation has to be sacrosanct

For London Irish the time is nigh. The theme of whether relegation is a positive or not has been raised far less than usual this season, one suspects in part because goings on at the other end of the table have been more interesting than usual.

Yet the irritation at the way the potential promoted club has to undergo a strict and lengthy facility audit at the same time as all the other Premiership clubs are busying themselves with squad-strengthening is still evident.

Of the four clubs taking part in the championship play-offs only Bedford are not interested in redeveloping or upgrading their Goldington Road ground. There are some sound developmental arguments for the audit, but this should be performed at the start of the year, not at the business end of the season, thus at least allowing a fairer playing field for the new elite team, rather than from a sometime indiscriminate moment in June when all the available playing talent has already been snapped up.

 

It is going to be difficult next season for most of the clubs in the Championship, but rather than going on about the drawbacks of a system that allows those outside the elite to dream, should not attention be paid to investing some of the extra money pouring into the top flight  into making the Championship fit for the purpose of a principle that is enshrined in the agreement between Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Football Union. A new improved financial deal between the two parties will shortly be unveiled but more needs to be done to boost the Championship, many of whose clubs are right up against it financially.

 

One look at the faces of the London Irish players at the final whistle against Harlequins on Saturday was reason enough to tell you why promotion and relegation is a good thing; shattered, distraught, spent. Those raw, pained emotions of course are why we all keep coming back. It is not cruel or ghoulish to want to bear witness to such trials and tribulations. It is the essence of sport- that emotion-shredding ride along the spectrum that runs from glory to despair, from joy to sorrow, from triumph to failure. If you dismantle one by ring-fencing the Premiership, then you dilute the other one two.  The sense of desolation felt by the Exiles on Saturday evening is the mirror image of jubilation that will be the preserve of one of the high-flying Premiership elite at Twickenham at the end of this month. Do away with one and you compromise the other.

 

The sanctity of promotion and relegation must be upheld. That is not to say that the concept ought not to be under constant review. It is only right  that the play-off system in the Championship be scrutinised, There are commercial imperatives in play, both in the Championship and the Premiership, but play-offs in the elite league have validity because sides are weakened, and the integrity of the competition distorted, because so many players are absent during the international windows.

There is no such justification in the Championship. First-past-the-post is the only way to do that bit of business.

 

 

 

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

So David Beckham is a rugby man!

In an interview in the Christmas issue of Radio Times David Beckham no less boasted that he is a rugby man!
He was quoted thus:” I love rugby – I love watching it and I love the whole thing.” Why? Well, it’s all about the fans. “People sitting together with no nastiness”.
Then the clincher: “I have enjoyed going to Twickenham more than I have enjoyed watching football.”

Ah David…we were doing so well. I like going to Twickenham as well, but alas have never managed an invite to the executive box which seems to be Mr. Beckham’s natural Twickenham habitat judging from when he appears on T.V. waving to the less fortunate.
And I bet he has never stood in the pouring rain watching Ealing Trailfinders play a Greene King Championship match against Yorkshire Carnegie along with 620 other damp souls.

In recent seasons Trailfinders have been the ultimate yo-yo club. They were playing in National Division 3 South as recently as 2009, but by the end of the 2012-13 season they had finished at the summit of National League 1 and were promoted to the Championship. They finished 12th and were relegated but bounced back after just one season (with an impressive haul of 136 points), where they now face another struggle to stay in the division.

Saturday’s opponents, Yorkshire Carnegie ( or Leeds Carnegie as they were then) were a Premiership club as recently as 2011,but while being generally regarded as one of the “big beasts” of the Championship have yet to seriously demonstrate their ability to reclaim their Premiership status. After Saturday’s 45 – 29 victory they lie in third place and are handily placed for the post-season play-off lottery.
They also have a player with 27 England caps in their ranks, albeit for the English rugby league side. At the age of 35 Kevin Sinfield decided he wanted to give rugby union a go after a silverware-stuffed career with Leeds Rhinos (who share a stadium with Carnegie so at least getting used to his surroundings wouldn’t have been a problem). After Sam Burgess’s much trumpeted and controversial switch to the union code Sinfield’s move was a much more low-key affair.
But he is obviously a quick learner and operated at fly-half in a very convincing display. He also operated as his team’s kicker, and I couldn’t help wondering what effect he might have had on English rugby union if he had made the switch 10 years earlier.
Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

Abolish these Championship play-offs

You would not have dared write the script. Chris Pennell, Worcester’s favourite son and a man who stood by them throughout relegation, scores a last minute try , and Ryan Lamb nervelessly slots the conversion to draw the game on the night, and give Worcester a one point win on aggregate over the two legs of the Championship final.
In terms of pure drama, it was right up there with anything we have seen in the sport. But the utter devastation and disbelief on the faces of the Bristol players painted an entirely different picture.
That only one of Worcester or Bristol could be promoted is immeasurably cruel and even more so when you consider that it is heartbreak for Bristol in the final second for a second season in a row. But really, they should never have been in this situation again.

Play-offs in the Premiership can be explained away – the final has become a true spectacle and draws in the crowds, and the money. It also offsets the times in the calendar when some sides have players away on international duty, meaning you still have a shot at the title even if all your top players are missing for swathes of the season and you suffer a blip in form.
Neither of those arguments apply to the Championship. The final is played over two legs, at the homes of the two finalists, serving only to add one extra gate’s takings to the coffers. A drop in the ocean compared to a season in the Premiership, of course. And 99% of the players in the league do not receive call-ups for international periods.

This season, almost from week one, it has been obvious that Bristol and Worcester would occupy the top two spots. Knowing the play-off system, it becomes almost pointless who finishes first and who second-which surely just makes a mockery of the league system in itself.
Bristol beat Worcester home and away in the regular season-to turn around and then say they have to do it again in a play-off competition is both bonkers and unnecessary-have they not already proved themselves to be better?
Bristol should have been promoted last year, after walking the league season. That would, in all likelihood, have led Worcester doing the same this season, and both would be competing in the Premiership next year. Instead, Bristol will have to go through the motions for another nine months to get to another play-off final, and the only couple of really meaningful games in their season.

The Premiership ring-fencing is a debate for another time, but the scrapping of the Championship play-off system is one that should be had now.

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

Attendances don’t tell the whole story

The official attendance for the London Double Header at Twickenham on Saturday was 61,424. Its probably a good job that the official attendance wasn’t  based on the number in the ground at the end of the London Irish v Harlequins clash, a match described by one writer as complete dross.

There were 1,087 souls at the Richmond Athletic Ground,just a few miles down the road, to see London Scottish take on Rotherham Titans in the season’s opener of the rather grandly named Greene King IPA Championship. I was one of them.

On a warm,sunny afternoon Exiles skipper Mark Bright scored a hat trick of tries as his team put down an early marker in their play-off chase against direct rivals.And he wasn’t even named Man of the Match.

The air is thick with pundits reminding us that the Rugby World Cup is only a year away , and I guess every Premiership game between now and then will be examined against that background.

I can recommend the Richmond Athletic Ground as one place to get away from the hype.

 

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk