Mention of Jersey may bring to mind sandy beaches, Bergerac or grim tales of German occupation. Let us add to those an oval ball and sporting ambition as the Channel Island’s rugby club last week sealed their fifth promotion in eight years. They will play next season in the Championship, one level below the Premiership.
Until now the prominent Islanders in English rugby were Samoans, Tongans and Fijians. But among the Jersey squad who won 23 out of the last 24 matches to become National League One champions, around a third are locally born. The rest, among them player-coach and former Wales prop Ben Evans, are imported. The financial clout comes from the club chairman Bill Dempsey (pictured) and a group of around 160 sponsors. Almost 4,000 spectators packed their Rue des Landes ground next to the airport for the win over Fylde eight days ago, after which former England captain Bill Beaumont presented the league trophy.
Dempsey has not lost his Wexford accent – he is having a fine time what with Leinster reaching the Heineken Cup final – in 30 years living on Jersey. His business is distributing household and catering goods and his club have been cleaning up since their rise began with the London Three South West title in 2005. They have spent prudently on a dozen full-time players this season under the guidance of Ben Harvey, the director of rugby who joined in 2008.
Dempsey is daring to dream when asked the inevitable question about how far Jersey can climb. “I’m no longer saying we could never do the Premiership,” he revealed. “We can’t do it at the
present ground. But we have a couple of other pitches on the site and maybe with the support of local government, given the boost it would be for tourism, it could lend itself to a stadium of therequired [10,000] capacity. Jersey has a few wealthy immigrants who might get involved too.”
Evans said: “I’d compare our club to Swansea in its atmosphere. There’s a bit of salt in the air and a few old stalwarts at the bar, one or two of whom are dubious about our rise. The vast majority are proud of us. We have a mix of local boys and a couple of southern hemisphere types chucked in. We are an entertaining team who score a lot of tries. We want it to snowball.
“The Championship will be an exciting league, but we need to add to the squad in almost every position. We want to go to the likes of Rotherham and Leeds – and Newcastle if they come down – and be competitive.”
Evans tips the Jerseymen hooker David Felton and fly-half Michael le Bourgeois to play at the top level, with or without their home club. Quentin Smith, the chairman of Premiership Rugby, made encouraging noises at a recent club dinner; Leicester Tigers are on tour for four days in August including a pre-season friendly; Graeme le Saux, the Jersey-born footballer, has been to matches, and Ian Woosnam the golfer has shared a pint with the players. Three hundred youngsters throng the club on Sunday mornings.
Next season Jersey and their opponents will be denied the £80,000 of RFU subsidy that funded flights to and fro in National One and below. But it seems the only way is up.