Rugby union will follow football's example next Saturday when the second division in England kicks off a week ahead of its bigger, sexier counterpart, the Premiership. Unlike the Coca-Cola Championship, however, rugby's National League One has no sponsorship, hardly any television coverage and a profile about as high as a limbo-dancing earthworm. So why are so many clubs in this division spending more than £1m each on players? They are chasing a dream, with changes afoot which will affect every English club and the four Welsh regions too.
The 16 National League One clubs believe the Rugby Football Union want to create a new league below the Guinness Premiership which will be called the Championship and may be sponsored by the brewing giant. Four clubs from National One would be jettisoned, possibly as early as next summer, to leave a professional structure of 24 clubs in England: 12 in the Premiership, 12 in the Championship.
To maintain a season-long fixture list and attract sponsorship and TV coverage there would be eight-team play-offs for promotion from the Championship, and a new cup competition to succeed the EDF Energy Cup which would involve the 12 Premiership teams, four Welsh regions and top four Championship teams.
"The RFU say they have an agreement in principle with the WRU on that," said Geoff Cooke, chief executive of the National League One. "It could be a terrific opportunity for four of our clubs to get in with higher opposition." A second cup competition would comprise the remaining Championship teams plus six sides from Wales' semi-professional Premiership.
"If we had two fully professional leagues it can only help English rugby," said Cooke, though he remains cautious because not all the National League One clubs are in favour and everyone is waiting for a definitive proposal by the RFU.
But Cooke, who was manager of the Grand Slam-winning England team in the early 1990s, echoed an RFU line when he said: "We've all heard stories about our young players kicking their heels at Premiership clubs or spending half their lives in the gymnasium. Twenty-four clubs would give all our young players a good standard of rugby and give spectators a much wider geographical spread."
London Welsh finished seventh in National League One last season and are splashing out on a full-time squad for the first time. The relocation of Wasps, London Irish and Saracens had left Harlequins alone in playing professional rugby in London – until now.
"I believe the RFU understand that the game needs to grow and it has to have a broader base," said Peter Thomas, the London Welsh chief executive. "People shouldn't have to go a long way to find top-level rugby." Of the other National League One clubs Leeds Carnegie, Cornish Pirates, Exeter and Doncaster are also full-time, Cooke said, while Plymouth, Nottingham, Coventry, Moseley, Rotherham and Bedford have between 60 and 80 per cent professional squads.
The Welsh are famous for their running rugby – most notably through the seven players they sent on the victorious 1971 Lions tour to New Zealand – but this is a different kind of gamble.
They hope to share a 20,000-seat stadium planned by Brentford FC at Lionel Road near the M4 Chiswick roundabout. This raises the issue of primacy of tenure but Thomas said: "It has to be logical [for rugby clubs] to share with football. If you have to invest in a new stadium it reduces your ability to put the right squad out."
Thomas regrets that the WRU have failed to see the potential at London Welsh – while Wales-qualified players such as James Haskell, Tom Rees and Hugo Ellis have gone with England – and the club missed the chance to grasp the nettle and expand in their 1970s heyday.
"We're very firmly in the English set-up," Thomas, a former City IT auditor, said. "We get nothing from the WRU and my understanding is they don't have the money to fund a fifth region. [As for] TV rights, whether it's terrestrial like Five or pay-per-view like Setanta, I'm sure they'd be keen to get their hands on rugby based in England. The challenge is getting the funding to take us into the Premiership and there are enough people who share the vision with us."
Though the Premiership (set up in its current form in 2000) has retained promotion and relegation, it has become almost a closed shop by default. The likes of Leicester, Gloucester and Wasps receive millions in central funding and the shareholding arrangement strengthens their position the longer they stay in the division.
Northampton were relegated in 2007 with a parachute payment and shares worth about £2.5m; they won 35 matches out of 35 as a National League One side to come straight back up. RFU funding to National League One clubs is £106,452 each.
A broadening of the player base is under way already with almost all the National League One clubs taking players on loan from Premiership sides. London Welsh will have two or three Wasps academy players, plus a former Wasp, Paul Sampson, who played for England. They have signed six players from Wales and retained their three Fiji internationals.
Clubs below National League One suspect the RFU want to do away with their central funding altogether. A game-wide consultation on the future of the lower leagues is under way. "You either have ambition or you decide that your place is in the community game," Thomas said.Reuse content