Why Exiles and the rest are desperate for promotion this season
With the Championship starting this weekend, Chris Hewett explains why it is crucial for clubs to make the great step up
There are many differences between top-flight professional club rugby in England and the version they play across the water in France: budgets, squad sizes, overseas recruitment raids, crowds and the level of razzmatazz are all significantly greater in the land of the Tricolore, not to mention the range of disciplinary offences. A player can find himself in the dock on a charge of "brutality" over there, as the international flanker Julien Bonnaire discovered a few seasons back.
Perhaps the sharpest contrast has been found one level down from the elite league. Some of the traditional powerhouses of the French game – Agen, Beziers, Bourgoin, Narbonne, Pau – are currently playing Second Division rugby, along with Colomiers, who once reached a Heineken Cup final, and Lyon, one of the most lavishly-financed clubs in the country. The English cannot compete in this area. Somehow, Jersey and the newly-promoted Ealing Trailfinders do not carry the same cachet as Dax or Mont-de-Marsan.
Yet there are sure signs of growth in the tier-two Championship. This season's tournament, which begins on Saturday with a series of "double header" events involving all 12 teams, has a title sponsor – the brewers Greene King – and there is a feeling around the league that this will be the most competitive campaign in years. Indeed, the most ambitious clubs see it as do-or-die time, on the grounds that those missing out on promotion to the Premiership next May will not have another realistic opportunity any time soon.
This is because London Welsh, who finished bottom of the Premiership heap last spring after the bravest of stabs at survival, are widely assumed to be in pieces, as broken in terms of personnel as they are busted financially, and in no position to mount a serious bid for an immediate return to the big league. As this season's relegated club – London Irish or Newcastle, Sale or Worcester – will have the firepower to go straight back up, the sense of urgency among supporters is palpable.
Assumptions can be dangerous things, though. London Welsh may have lost a fistful of high-performing players to all points of the Premiership compass and seen their inspirational coach Lyn Jones lured back to Wales by Newport Gwent Dragons, but they are nowhere near as weak as they seemed to be back in mid-April, when they lost their Premiership status, their chief executive and their principal financier in the space of a few gruesome hours. That financier, the long-suffering Kelvin Bryon, is back on board; they have a new head coach with top-level experience in Justin Burnell; and they have a raft of new signings, some of them extremely useful.
"What did I find when I arrived here? I was pleasantly surprised by the level of enthusiasm and ambition at the club. Actually, I was shocked by it." So said Burnell this week, and he went on to make it very clear that the Exiles did not intend to spend the next couple of seasons licking their wounds. "There is a real hunger to get back into the Premiership straight away," he continued, "and there's a lot of positive energy around the place. I've spent precisely none of my time lifting spirits or picking people up. We're ready to challenge."
Bristol, underpinned financially by the billionaire financial services tycoon Steve Lansdown, have a top-end coaching team – Andy Robinson, positively smothered in international experience, and Sean Holley are nobody's fools – and start as favourites in many quarters, especially as they have signed some hardened Premiership operators in the outside-half Nicky Robinson, the lock Mark Sorenson and the No 8 Ben Skirving. "They've been very vocal in saying they're going to win the league," remarked Burnell, pointedly.
For all its rugby torments and traumas over the last few years, Bristol is still as much a union town as it is a football one. Consequently, expectation is high. But Robinson and company will not have it all their own way: Bedford, cleverly coached by the long-serving and highly respected Mike Rayer, will work them hard, while Leeds, adept at producing quality talent through their cross-code links at Headingley, are certain to ask some awkward questions of the West Countrymen.
"There are a number of good sides who feel they have what it takes to go up," Burnell said. "When I look around the league and analyse the contenders, I throw the likes of Nottingham, who performed very well last season, and Cornish Pirates into the mix. And I certainly believe this London Welsh team will be among the contenders.
"It's a club steeped in history, but while it's nice to look back on the good old days, history isn't the important thing. What matters to me is that people like Kelvin and Bleddyn Phillips [the chairman] have instilled the right values and brought the right level of passion. Those values and that passion will be our strength."
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