Out of the National One frying pan, and into the Championship fire…?
I’m in the room at the top, you’re at the end of the line
Open the door and lay down on the bed
The sun is just a ball of desire
And I wanna take you out of the frying pan (and into the fire)
Out of the frying pan (and into the fire)
Out of the frying pan, and into the fire
Meatloaf – Out Of The Frying Pan (And Into The Fire)
As I recall, plans to ring-fence Tier 2 of English rugby in the next couple of seasons were partly behind Jon Sharp and Rowland Winter’s decision to speed up the rebuilding of the Cov squad and go all out for promotion into the Championship perhaps a season earlier than was originally envisaged.
Not the only reason of course, but 18 months ago there was very real talk of either a complete ring-fencing or, failing that, an end-of-season play-off between the side finishing bottom of the Championship and the one topping National One – an arrangement that would be so weighted in favour of the Championship side as to make it likely the status quo would seldom, if ever, be disturbed.
Since then, discussions have changed direction somewhat, but at the time it was a real concern and I, for one, was very encouraged by Cov’s response. Instead of just a shaking of the head and a somewhat reluctant shrug, Winter recruited strongly 12 months ago, fully aware that the unfortunate circumstances surrounding London Welsh gave the resurgent Cov its best chance of promotion in the next few seasons – and possibly before any ringfencing was introduced.
Cov’s own desire to be back amongst the big boys, or the bigger boys anyway, was of course the overriding factor in Cov’s rebuild, but the threat was still very much a factor and given the idiosyncratic behaviour of the RFU, it was definitely something that had to be taken seriously.
And whilst it does seems to have all gone quiet on the ring-fencing front of the Championship at least, I’m sure it won’t be too long before the issue is once again raised behind closed doors somewhere at rugby’s HQ.
At the time it felt as if it was a genuine possibility, a likelihood even.
That promotion was achieved so quickly and in such a commanding way is indicative of the professional approach Cov now enjoys across all areas of its work, both on and off the pitch. The club isn’t without its problems by any manner of means and there are things it has still to get right, but Cov is now very much in tune with the times, something that couldn’t have been said of it a few years back.
I might be alone in this, but I really enjoyed those 8 seasons in National One, meeting some great people at some great clubs along the way and should we ever return, sad as that would be for the club, at least I know as a supporter there would be much to still look forward to.
That said, I greeted Coventry’s promotion into the Championship not only with elation, but also a slight sense of relief. Sad as I am to leave National One, at least the Championship should be something of a safer haven…
…or not, as the case may be.
Premiership clubs have long wanted to break free from the current pyramid system of national rugby but I had naively hoped that the arguments in favour of the ring-fencing of the Premiership had died a death in the last 12 months.
I’m rather ashamed to admit that what’s been happening in the top-tier of English rugby hasn’t really been of great interest to me in the past, so far removed was Coventry from it all when the club was struggling to raise its head even above mid-table in National One.
Suddenly, promotion into the Championship and talk already of the club confidently expecting to compete for a spot in the top four within just two years has meant a different focus.
What happens in the Premiership is now of more than just a passing interest, something I didn’t really think I’d be saying even 18 months ago.
And it would appear that having jumped, leapt even, so successfully from the frying pan, we have very much landed on a fire which is already smouldering.
And Ben Franks, the former New Zealand prop who played in the Championship for London Irish in 2016/17, has done his best to fan the flames, suggesting in an interview with Neale Harvey in last weekend’s The Rugby Paper that:
if you could ringfence the Premiership for a while, teams like London Irishwouldn’t have to make such a huge investment buying players in
In other words, clubs promoted into the Premiership wouldn’t have to overstretch themselves in order to avoid the drop the following season.
It’s one way of looking at it, certainly, but another is to believe that ringfencing is just an excuse to enable the rich to get richer and the poorer to completely lose heart. Clubs like Bedford and Richmond have no desire to play in the Premiership now, aware of their own financial limitations and unwilling, quite rightly, to risk ruin to give themselves even a chance of promotion.
Not so Coventry, although I hasten to add, a similar risk is much lower given what we know of the plans in place to self-finance a promotion campaign.
The drive to test itself at the next level, to compete against bigger and better teams, is what has enthused everyone within the club. Aspirations of the Championship, and ultimately the Premiership, have galvanised all connected with the BPA.
Two-time World Cup winner Franks argues that promoted clubs:
could make more of an investment in local kids and have a five or six year plan based on some stability and grow the club that way
yet that is precisely what a lot of Championship clubs, and below, are already doing, Coventry included.
Indeed, Cov is looking to have one or two home-grown players regularly wearing first team colours in the next couple of seasons, with Joe Lane perhaps the most likely to achieve that out of the current crop of players.
Others, like Cameron Gray, Will Priestley, Luc Jeannot and Kwaku Asiedu might not be home-grown as such, but they are coming through the Academy set-up and will doubtless be pushing for places before too long as well.
What Franks is promulgating is no more than should be incumbent on all clubs in the top three tiers. Even with just the one pitch at its disposal, Cov are introducing an Under-18 side this season and developing a junior section in the seasons to follow. It’s patronising to suggest that the Premiership should be ringfenced to allow the top clubs to develop their own talent when it is happening everywhere else anyway…
Of more relevance, perhaps, is Franks’ assertion that whilst he was playing in the Championship with London Irish:
the message I got week-to-week is that most of the clubs are struggling to pay their players.
Unless something is done it will become an amateur or semi-professional competition and is that really going to feed the Premierhship
Now that is almost certainly true, although I’m not sure whether it’s a case of ‘most’ or ‘some’. London Welsh fell victim to mounting debts last season and at the time there was rumour of one or two other clubs facing a similar fate should things not improve.
However, I have little sympathy for clubs who do over-stretch themselves financially. Whilst it’s a great shame that we’ve seen several clubs fold in recent years, or suffer sanctions imposed on them from above for failing to meet stringent financial targets, many clubs are struggling because of their own financial mismanagement in the past – as was the case with Coventry in the not so recent past.
Natural selection and the survival of the fittest applies to the world of sport just as it does elsewhere. And the brutal truth is, if a club can’t sort out its finances enough to pay the wages of its staff, then it shouldn’t be allowed to continue in its present form. There are plenty of clubs like Old Elthamians and Chinnor who are planning to expand and will doubtless soon be ready to challenge clubs in the Championship who are currently just happy to tread water.
And if Coventry can develop its infrastructure and ground in a way that enables it to self-finance a team capable of promotion into the Premiership in three or four years time, why on earth should it be denied the right to compete at the top level, especially if there are clubs in the top tier who are only there because the Premiership is ringfenced?
The essence of Franks’ argument is that the Championship exists purely as a feeder for the Premiership, suggesting as he does that if the Championship does eventually become an amateur or semi-professional league:
(then) is that really going to feed the Premiership – league where guys are spending millions of pounds on their squads?
It’s true that if the Championship worked as it should, young players would be nurtured locally, play tier two rugby and in the process and get themselves spotted by Premiership scouts.But that is not the sole purpose for the existence of the Championship. Far from it.
Further, Franks’ argument is self-defeating in that there will always be players in the Championship talented enough to play Premiership rugby even if ringfencing is introduced, but by widening the gap between the two tiers, its far less likely they will get noticed, or play a standard of rugby high enough for them to really show off their skills to the full.
Lessening the gap between the top two leagues by increasing the monies Championship Clubs receive from the RFU ensures this is less likely to happen…casting them adrift totally virtually guarantees it.
Surely the idea is to raise the standard of rugby being played in the Championship, not lower it?
Franks asks the crucial question: ‘What is the value of the Championship?‘ and goes on to answer it by saying:
If you’re going to have relegation you need to have a strong second tier competition for teams to go into and in which teams are properly prepared to come up, but I don’t believe the Championship does that
He argues that the gap is getting wider and wider and it’s not preparing the promoted teams for what is to follow. Well, if that is the case, and the yo-yo-ing of teams like Irish and Bristol suggests it probably is, then surely the answer is to address any issues surrounding the quality of rugby being played in the Championship, rather than removing promotion from it?
Ringfencing is the easy option, but the wrong one.
If measures were put in place that to enable the quality of the game in the Championship to become closer to that of the Premiership, then the top clubs would also benefit in the long run.
The problem is, of course, that ensuring improved standards would necessitate greater investment and no-one is prepared to dig deep, despite the squillions of pounds being ‘earned’ through the selling of tv rights in the Premiership. The Premiership clubs don’t appear to be interested in the good of the game, but only in lining their own pockets..
Franks mentions, too, that he’s regularly played in front of clubs in the Championship with gates of just a few hundred people, an indication that supporters don’t see the Championship as a product that’s worth watching.
Well there might be some truth in that for some clubs. But the extremely dismissive way he words it simply reinforces how patronising those who should know better, but don’t, really are towards the Championship:
How many people watch the Championship anyway?
I’d be much more understanding if he questioned how the RU and clubs could work together to attract a wider interest in the game below the Premiership and how they could generate greater involvement on and off the pitch, rather than suggest that the lack of numbers is reason alone to shut the door on promotion into it.
He also fails to mention that London Irish’s average gate the season they were last promoted was just 4000 and less, I would argue, than will be Coventry’s in the season we’re next promoted – although I accept that one might not hold up in a court of law….
A successful Coventry side, for instance, in an end-of-the-season top-of-the-table clash at home in the Championship, is going to attract a sell-out crowd for sure, even if the capacity is increased to nearer 7000. And that would increase still further in the Premiership – yet Franks would have us remain in the Championship at the expense of teams who wouldn’t necessarily be impacting in their local environs as much as Coventry is.
The city of Coventry needs a thriving Coventry rugby Club, a Cov in the Premiership for instance…yet no one is willing to factor in how important that is in addition to the other arguments.
In a prime location, unlike Wasps, with many supporters travelling through the city centre to get to the ground…
Local businesses would definitely prosper, but I guess that would be of absolutely no interest to the Premiership alickadoos…
..or alickadon’ts in their case.
Having said at the start of the article that he doesn’t ‘want to bash the Championship too much’, Ben Franks does a pretty good job of doing just that.
He’s clearly intent on reopening the ringfencing debate and given the publicity that The Rugby Paper has given him, there’s every chance he’ll be successful.
For me, then, the sooner Cov can develop the facilities enough to finance its assault on the Premiership, the better. Time remains on our side for the moment, but such is the power of the Premiership these days, things could change all too quickly.
So, it’s a case of out of the frying pan that was National One and into the fiery conflagration that might well yet be the Championship…
Surprisingly, I think this is a first appearance for Meatloaf…something that might have to be addressed during the course of this season.
Hopefully, someone will agree enough with this post to at least hum ‘You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth‘
Never seen Meatloaf live – on this performance it was clearly the right decision.
Band – yes, Meatloaf – no