The Championship – taking the risk or playing it safe?
Ever since the advent of the league rugby back in 1987, Coventry has struggled to come to terms with competitive rugby at a national level.
Of the 29 completed seasons that have elapsed since then, we’ve spent just one in the equivalent of the Premiership, 20 in the Championship and eight in National 1 (including the last six).
Hardly a great record and one that suggests that the club has been in decline for a considerable time. For those of us who can remember the period in Coventry’s history pre-1987, the last 29 years have, for the most part, been somewhat depressing with 4 relegations and just the two promotions, in 1993/94 and 1995/96. It’s been a long, long time since the club experienced any tangible success.
As of today, we are 30th in the in the English rugby union league pyramid of clubs, with the midterm goal of getting ourselves back into the top 24.
On paper it doesn’t sound the most challenging of targets, does it – an increase of just 7 places?
But, increasingly, success is reliant on financial support from outside of the game and there are relatively few clubs that can sustain the expenditure needed not only to gain promotion into the Championship, but also to consolidate their position there for a number of seasons.
We’ve seen in the last couple of years Plymouth Albion, Jersey and now London Welsh all face RFU sanctions of one form or another and the sad news that Welsh is no longer going to be allowed to remain in the Championship or stay a professional side is a stark reminder of the dangers inherent in the current league structure.
If clubs want to become fully professional, then in the long term National 1 rugby isn’t a viable option over a number of seasons, unless a club has a chairman or board with deep, deep pockets. Both Moseley and Plymouth struggled to maintain any real financial security in tier 2 even with a £500,000 + RFU payment every year and they have since had to readjust considerably to life in National 1.
Two or three seasons ago, Doncaster and Ealing, twice, were able to retain most of their Championship squads after relegation and run away with the National 1 title the following year, with support from a generous board and a fully professional squad.
But in the last two years this hasn’t been the case, with both Plymouth and Moseley overly committing themselves in an attempt to retain their Championship status and then finding themselves far too financially stretched to either keep hold of, or recruit, a squad strong enough to ensure a quick return to the Championship 12 months on.
With far less money evident amongst most clubs this season (although Ampthill seem to be doing ok, if rumours of the win bonus they were on when we played them before Christmas are true), it is Hartpury College who lead the way, financed directly or indirectly through public funds and with close links to one or more Premiership sides.
The success of Hartpury has certainly aroused a range of responses from supporters but, like them or loathe them, they are most likely the prototype for many clubs in the Championship in the years to come.
With the costs of Championship rugby being problematic for many teams in tier 2, and with speculation that a number of clubs besides Jersey and London Welsh are struggling to remain solvent, it’s no surprise to see why the Premiership clubs are keen to move in and buddy-up with those with clubs in the Championship that feel such a move could be their only way of maintaining second tier rugby.
Under the Premiership’s proposals. there will be clubs in the Championship that become little more than 2nd XVs, breeding grounds for those Premiership sides that want regular competitive rugby for their squad players who aren’t able to hold down a place in the 1st XV squad, together with Academy players eager to prove their worth. Those clubs who agree to buddy up will lose the right to be promoted into the Championship but will almost certainly avoid relegation, given the strength of their squad and presuming, of course, that the Championship hasn’t been ring-fenced by then.
The winding up of London Welsh brings home just what it is Coventry will have to face if and when we get promoted from National 1. If the playing fields aren’t level in the current league we’re in, in the Championship they’ll be positively undulating…
However, I still can’t see Coventry agreeing to buddying up with a Premiership side, not if it means us losing our autonomy, our own unique identity.
John Sharp and Rowland Winter have both said that the long term goal, the very long term goal, for Coventry is the ‘Championship and beyond’.
To me, ‘and beyond’ is unmistakably a reference to the Premiership. So no buddying up for us then, surely?
That’s clear and unequivocal.
Sure, I rather expect that we’d be happy enough to make use of those fairly inexperienced players from Premiership clubs with perhaps a year or two’s more experience than the current crop of talented Wasps’ youngsters whom we have benefitted from already this season…
…but not if it means selling our soul.
And besides, provided promotion doesn’t come round too quickly, Jon Sharp is putting in place a plan that will create far more business and commercial opportunities for the club to generate much needed income, income which I understand will be ploughed back into the playing side of the club. If that is correct, then Coventry would be able to generate revenues sufficient enough to allow it to remain independent of the Premiership clubs.
There is an interesting philosophical question here – does the owner of a rugby club, be it an individual or the board, have a moral obligation to uphold the traditions and history attached to a club, especially one like Coventry, formed as it was back in 1874 and with such a proud heritage to its name?
Fortunately, this isn’t a question one would ask of Jon Sharp or the Board as it is clear they are well aware of Cov’s past and the place it has in the history of the game on a local, national and international levels.
But what of others…should there not be greater checks and balances placed on clubs like London Welsh to ensure that what we have seen happen this week is avoided and problems addressed well before they reach the point of no return. Surely the sport is obliged in some way to prevent clubs like London Welsh from facing potential oblivion.
Just how that might work…well, to be honest, I haven’t really thought through, but relegation (of more than 1 league where appropriate) would be one solution and certainly one more preferable to being cast down to the bowels of the pyramidal system or possibly even facing complete closure.
Should London Welsh, with such a proud and distinguished past, be treated any differently than say a Doncaster or Ealing, were they to find themselves in the same situation? Can the game afford to lose such a prestigious club? Great clubs they might be, but neither Doncaster Knights or Ealing Traifinders could be regarded as having quite the same status in the game…?
I’m just playing devil’s advocate, no more…
There are those who feel that National 1 rugby offers the game in a purer, less sullied form that in the higher leagues. The game is played as it should be played and offers far more excitement and a quality of rugby that is far more enjoyable for the spectator.
The Championship is more professional across all areas of the game, with fewer matches and far more pressure on results. Skill and agility are sometimes sacrificed in preference to physical size and power. The differential between the top teams, those with a genuine possibility of promotion into the Premiership, and those anchored to the bottom and fighting relegation almost from the very first fixture of the season, is massive. Are spectators really prepared to see their side lose most weekends knowing that they are never going to be as competitive as increasingly the wealthier clubs get wealthier and, well, the poor clubs go bust?
Well yes, I think they are, but more of that anon.
It might be argued that the same could be said of National 1, where there is also a big divide between top and bottom. That’s indeed true, but with more teams in the middle, somewhere between the two, there’s always more chance of movement within the league over the course of the season, with a few surprises along the way.
Certainly if you’re at the top end of National 1 and without ambitions to play in the Championship, it’s a good place to be. You win more games than you lose, and see some exciting, attacking rugby with many players who have yet to make a name for themselves or some who have already done so at a higher level and are there to enjoy their last few seasons, having already proved themselves elsewhere.
But for me, sport at this level should always be competitive and everyone should set out to prove themselves against the very best.
It might mean taking a risk or two at times, but it’s invariably worth the gamble.
‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ – swifter, higher, stronger. It’s what Olympians strive for and it should be what those involved at Cov should be seeking, too. We should be proving ourselves all the time against the very best around, always testing ourselves and pushing ourselves to new heights. Unless we aim for the top, then we will never know how good we could have been and there will always be that doubt, that nagging regret that we declined to prove ourselves because we were too afraid to fail.
Provided we don’t endanger the very foundations of the club through poor financial management (and I think most supporters are confident in the ability of the present management to provide precisely the secure footing that has been lacking under previous administrations), then I think it is incumbent on those responsible to always attempt to move the club forwards and to always be challenging itself.
That’s why I’m so impressed with what has happened at Cov over these past few months. From the word go, Rowland Winter has set about improving all aspects of the club, on and off the pitch, in order to put into place the structures and systems necessary to move the club forward. It has been done with the approval of the Chairman and within an agreed budget, with the main purpose of achieving Championship rugby, however long that might take.
Who knows how successful Coventry will ultimately be, but to misquote Alfred Lord Tennyson:
it is better to have played and lost, than to have never played at all…