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The future tends not to wait for the past to pack its bags. It certainly feels that way in English domestic rugby where the winds of change are once again howling around some creaking old institutions. Ask any club below the Premiership where they see themselves in five years’ time and just about all of them shrug their shoulders and say they are in limbo awaiting some clarity from Twickenham.
Everything is relative, of course, and all connected with the game send their best wishes to Bill Sweeney, the RFU chief executive, who is currently in hospital being treated for a pulmonary embolism. His anticipated absence from work for several weeks, though, comes at a delicate time with increasing disquiet up and down the country among those who cherish the game below the top tier.
The decision not to allow the Championship winners Ealing Trailfinders to be promoted to the Premiership, ostensibly because their stadium does not meet the league’s minimum standards, was merely the latest psychological blow to be felt by every ambitious Championship club. Nor does it help to watch one or two Premiership sides seemingly down tools with several weeks of the competition still to play.
Was Bath’s abject 64-0 defeat at Gloucester on Saturday just a blip or a depressing glimpse of a new Premiership trend? And, for all the breathless action elsewhere, how is a crumbling post-Covid second tier supposed to enhance the development of English-qualified players, coaches and referees? Given adult male participation numbers are falling across the recreational game and funding is already squeezed, few would describe the outlook as massively rosy.
With a moratorium in place on relegation from the Premiership until the 2023-24 season, the official line is that negotiations over the Championship’s future are continuing. There may yet be a cup competition involving Premiership and Championship clubs from the 2023-24 season. But how many thriving professional outfits will the second tier contain by then? And are clubs below the elite really going to prosper on a forced diet of additional here-today gone-tomorrow loan players or whatever other top table crumbs fall their way?
Take Plymouth Albion in National One. They need to find £ 15,000 every month simply to keep their Brickfields facility going and have occasionally struggled to field a full 20-man squad this season. Rugby, though, remains a prominent local sport and, with a bit of extra help, happier days could conceivably lie ahead. When the Breakdown visited at the end of April, there were almost 3,000 happy patrons partying in the ground following the local “derby” with Taunton Titans, with the atmosphere and matchday hospitality both excellent.
But how can you plan for a future which remains so uncertain? And what should clubs like Albion aspire to be? Feeder clubs? Proud local institutions in their own right? Semi-pro or mostly amateur? “For me there’s an embarrassment of riches at the top end while everyone else is starving,” says Plymouth’s commercial manager, Chris Bentley, currently doing his best to steer the club through increasingly choppy financial waters. “What do we want rugby union to be? Maybe we should just stop calling it ‘union’ and simply call it ‘rugby.’ Because there’s no unity at the moment. ”
No-one ultimately benefits from Premiership clubs stockpiling players who, in the absence of a reserve league, either seldom play or end up on loan to clubs with whom they have little affinity. “It has a negative impact on everyone beneath them,” says another club insider. “My feeling is that all the clubs outside the Premiership should say to the Premiership clubs: ‘You keep your players, we’ll do it ourselves.’ If every club did that we wouldn’t have clubs going bust and we’d have a much more thriving and vibrant community game. I feel we would be in a much better position. It would be the best lads from your region playing the best lads from another region, not some players you’ve shipped in. ”
Instead, perhaps, up-and-coming players could prove themselves in a properly marketed, semi-pro Championship or via the increasingly popular BUCS Super Rugby. The latter, along with the Women’s National League, has been a major success story over the past five years and is spawning rising numbers of men’s and women’s international players. Student rugby also seems to be capturing the public imagination: last months’s men’s final between Exeter and Durham attracted a live stream audience of 40,000 people and the men’s and women’s competitions have had more than 620,000 views this season on YouTube. “There’s a following there and we need to start shouting about it,” says Jenny Morris, BUCS director of delivery.
No-one is yet drawing direct comparisons with US college football but closer links between universities and clubs seem an ideal way to nurture late developers. Ealing are in the vanguard, having established an academy connection with Brunel University, and so are Exeter. As things stand, though, the RFU covers some administrative costs but leaves the universities to fund everything else. “There’s a definite scope for us to be properly integrated and embedded and to be that complimentary offer alongside the existing academy system,” says Morris, who used to share a house with England’s Natasha ‘Mo’ Hunt ‘at Bath University. “Let the universities take the weight rather than them being seen as a challenge to what the clubs are doing.”
There are also calls for the BUCS champions to play an annual play off against the winners of the Oxford v Cambridge Varsity match, with many convinced the Oxbridge teams would lose heavily. It is another good example of how English rugby could update itself and attract fresh audiences. Last week 11,000 tickets were sold for the annual Swansea v Cardiff varsity fixture and, mostly partygoers or not, there are hopes for another significant attendance at Headingley on Wednesday when Leeds University face their city neighbors Leeds Beckett.
It all boils down to priorities but talk of an NFL-style schism, with non-pros effectively walking away by the age of 21, chills the blood of many. “The issue is there is no clear direction from above,” says another club source. “We’re meant to be looking after all of our clubs. If we took away a few of the top brass from the elite tier of the England set-up you could give each of the Championship clubs another £ 100.00 per season and still have change. That’s got to be wrong. ” The club season may be almost done but the debate over English rugby club’s future is intensifying.