Almost all members of the English club rugby community are in agreement about one thing: the current state of affairs cannot continue. The structure, if it can even be called that, of the struggling 10-team Premiership is fractured, and a planned eight-year deal between the Rugby Football Union and top club owners is seen as the necessary long-term solution.
The situation is acceptable, with the exception of one important factor. Currently, it does not benefit anyone else. Those in the second-tier Championship express a mix of frustration, determination, and dark humor due to the decline in funds and lack of central support over the years. Mark Lavery, director of rugby for Ampthill (currently in second place), describes it as taking money from the base and investing it in the top, only to be surprised when the base becomes unstable.
Mike Rayer, the director of rugby for Bedford, believes there is a lack of recognition for the Championship clubs and the national leagues below them. He feels that these clubs play a crucial role in developing young players, coaches, referees, and community involvement throughout the country. Rayer also notes that the Championship has not received much attention since before the pandemic and has been left to fend for itself. He highlights the positive developments and talented players within the league.
Similar to the situation with local newspapers and county cricket, relying solely on tradition and good intentions is no longer enough. Money is limited and there are more and more mouths to feed. Many, including Lavery, who runs a prominent car dealership group, believe that a comprehensive solution is needed for the sport as a whole, rather than just benefitting a select few. “The RFU seems to have a completely different perspective, where the top level is a closed market. As for everything else below that, there doesn’t seem to be a plan in place. And yet we want to increase the amount of money paid to PRL? Can you explain that logic to me? It’s like running an insane asylum.”
This raises important questions about the future of English rugby. Instead of forming close relationships with a small number of heavily indebted Premiership clubs, shouldn’t the RFU, as a members’ organization, be responsible for supporting the game at all levels? While collective discussions took place on Tuesday, there has been no indication of significant central funding in the near future.
Last week, the Championship issued a statement formally rejecting the concept of a “Premiership 2” franchise league. The league believes that this system would not be based on merit and would essentially reduce them to a “farm” club. This has resulted in ongoing uncertainty. Simon Halliday, chairman of the Championship committee, stated, “The idea of ‘Premiership 2’ implies a connection that does not exist, as they have conducted a private transaction that we were not involved in. We have been repeatedly told that they do not have the funds. To put it differently, they do not want to allocate them to us.”
The situation in France is vastly different, as the ProD2, the league below the Top 14, continues to thrive. This can be attributed to municipally owned stadiums and a more profitable television agreement. However, the contrast with England is striking. Even the top Premiership clubs are attempting to renegotiate their Covid loans, and the recent downfall of last year’s Championship champions, Jersey, highlights the unstable state of rugby’s economic environment.
What should the future hold? The issue is that there are numerous visions, much like a busy Specsavers store. Some clubs have high ambitions, while others are simply trying to survive. Ampthill currently ranks second in the league behind Ealing Trailfinders, but with no promotion or relegation and a home ground that does not meet the minimum standards, what else is there to strive for? “We started 18 years ago with the goal of reaching the Championship,” states Lavery. “At that time, we were at level 7. We achieved five promotions in 12 years, but now we have reached a barrier.”
Their initial budget has significantly decreased, from £680,000 during their debut season to £90,000 after covering medical costs. Ampthill has a partnership with Saracens and has had the privilege of having players such as Ben Earl, Alex Mitchell, Theo Dan, and Freddie Steward wear their jersey. However, their ultimate goal is to elevate Ampthill to the highest level possible. Lavery recalls Saracens playing on a park in north London not too long ago, which he witnessed firsthand.
Having a strong system for players to progress through, including a designated number of academy players who are qualified to play in England, is crucial. In Bedford, coach Mike Rayer has noticed that former Blues player Rich Lane scored three tries for Bristol against Exeter this month. Rayer, who has 18 years of experience as head coach at Goldington Road and earned 21 caps for Wales, believes there are still talented players in the Championship who could excel in the Premiership. He also highlights the accessibility of the club, where players can interact with supporters and experience the human aspect of the game. However, Rayer emphasizes the importance of not solely focusing on player development and recognizing the value of playing alongside experienced teammates.
Furthermore, teams in the Championship are accustomed to finding ways to be resourceful. According to Rayer, “We operate a sustainable business unlike the Premiership where they lose millions of pounds.” He also strongly believes that the promotion and relegation system is crucial for the success of the England senior team. “We must advocate for promotion and relegation. Ultimately, international rugby is all about the outcome. How can we properly prepare for that if we consistently lose 12 or 15 games a year without any consequences?”
Lavery concurs with this sentiment. Despite declining attendance and participation rates, and the potential dangers associated with playing the sport, there seems to be a preoccupation with making the sport less exciting by removing any element of risk. However, Halliday does not see a need for reconsideration. He believes that the sport, regardless of its preferences, must acknowledge that the obstacles to getting involved are not likely to diminish in the near future. The best approach to narrowing this gap is to address it from the grassroots level.
Some people still believe that the plan for the Championship, created by Edward Griffiths over three years ago, had some valuable ideas. However, Halliday thinks that a successful structure can eventually be developed. It may take longer due to the challenges we currently face. We cannot change the past, but we can use it as a learning experience. We all want to find a solution and create the best path for young players in the future. We also need to focus on promoting ourselves, something we have neglected in the past, and raise our standards.
“I agree with the RFU’s perspective that we cannot continue with the status quo. The lack of investment in these clubs over the years poses a significant challenge. As the saying goes, you get what you give. I believe we will face consequences for the decisions that have been made. However, I am not in charge of the RFU. My goal is to ensure that our clubs have control over their own future. Their worth should be acknowledged and I seek respect for them. Let it be known that our clubs are not lacking in ambition. They are extremely ambitious.”