The Greene King IPA Championship should be the irritating small dog that snaps at the heels of the Aviva Premiership.
Richard Grainger examines if it is, and if it’s fit for purpose.
Here are five reasons why England’s second tier deserves to be regularly showcased on the Rugby World website.
1: Players on the up and up
Let’s start with the obvious: eleven players from the GKIPA Championship
signed for Aviva Premiership outfits during the closed season. But although top tier is not currently awash with players fresh out of the league below fourteen of the current 32 player England squad have done time in the second tier. And the list
includes some very big hitters: Luther Burrell (Leeds Carnegie) Dan Cole (Bedford Blues) Luke Cowan-Dickie (Cornish Pirates) Henry Slade (Plymouth) Mako Vunipola (Bristol) and Marland Yarde (London Welsh). Even George Ford turned out for Leeds Carnegie once and stuck three dropped goals in an LV Cup match.
And when Owen Farrell is on International duty, former Leeds Carnegie stalwart Alex Lozowski will fill his boots at Allianz Park next term.
2: Players on the way down
Experience, according to Oscar Wilde, is the name everyone gives to their
But GKIPA Championship sides that have consistently performed well have done so thanks to a blend of old heads and youth.
Bristol — until June, the Aviva Premiership bridesmaids — have called on the services of former greats such as Ryan Jones and Dwayne Peel. And this year’s GKIPA Championship favourites, London Irish welcome former Quins stalwart George Robson to the Madejski Stadium.
London Welsh welcomed Dean Schofield, Marland Yarde, Sonny Parker, Tom Voyce and Tyson Keats to the Kassam Stadium. For Keats — who famously hailed from Christchurch New Zealand and not Christchurch Dorset, the experience was a painful one.
3: Big Brendon is back in town
There can be few people on this earth who care as passionately about the game of Rugby as Brendon Venter.
The 46 year-old doctor, a 17-cap World Cup winner with South Africa and former player and director of rugby at London Irish is back at the helm as Technical Director of the freshly relegated Exiles. A volatile but brilliant analyst and strategist who put Saracens onto the biggest stage before Mark McCall took up the reins, Venter is sure to be entertaining. And this, if nothing else, is sufficient reason for Rugby World to give web space to the GKIPA Championship.
Who will ever forget his interview following Saracens’ 21-24 defeat in December 2010 to Racing Metro 92?
“It is going to be a similar basis as with Sarries,” Venter said. “I am going to be working with Nick [Kennedy] and the coaches and I will be there a week a month.”
In the past ten seasons, all but three sides relegated from the Aviva Premiership have bounced straight back but Venter does not feel that experience gained from a lengthy stint in the top flight will be sufficient to guarantee an immediate return: “I said to everyone at Irish that while we all have experience in a lot of areas very few of us have been in the GKIPA Championship. Our experience means nothing… we are going to be the prized scalp. If you know that then you will fight fire with fire.” We can hardly wait: Irish open their season against Doncaster Knights — last season’s losing finalists — at the Madejski, September 3rd, kick off 3pm.
The Irish are well placed for an immediate return to the top flight. In addition to Venter, former Exiles’ legends are also at the helm: ‘Big’ Bob Casey is the current CEO, Nick Kennedy fills the role of Director of Rugby, Declan Danaher is the defence coach and Paul Hodgson takes charge of skills. Make no mistake — these men are London Irish through and through, and they have what it takes to see the job gets done. But do the players?
4: Runners and riders — who will stay up and who will go down?
Richmond, the second oldest club in England played the first inter-club fixture against Blackheath way back in 1864. The last time they were in the top tier was in 1998. But the financial bubble burst in 1999 and they went into administration. However, a record 83 consecutive league victories achieved a fight back to the second tier and who would bet against them staying there?
Meanwhile twice promoted Ealing Trailfinders may find the going tough, as may Rotherham Titans, who finished the season a point ahead of them. But Moseley, who had danced precariously across the trap door for several seasons, finally fell through it, saving both clubs.
Upwardly mobile Jersey Reds recently published a five-year plan, notable only perhaps for its lack of ambition: their aim is to make the play-offs within five years. Last season saw them finish in 6th position — their highest GKIPA Championship finish.
5: So is the GKIPA Championship the unwanted child that won’t disappear?
Marc Baldrey, director of Bold Sports Management in Warwickshire, believes that the unwillingness of clubs to provide parity with contracts, medical cover and salaries is making it harder for GKIPA Championship players to remain full-time.
“£25,000 contracts are getting harder to come by at a lot of Championship clubs and the league’s getting much worse off from an investment point of view,” said Baldrey.
“From a player development and coaching perspective I cannot see where the league is heading.
“Premiership clubs are getting increased funding and media attention and enjoying huge growth, but the Championship is falling further and further behind.”
And despite much criticism, the format of the league remains the same: 22 rounds followed by home and away play-offs for the top placed four clubs.
Sean Holley, the former Bristol first team coach, said before his departure: “There is no competition in the world that is like it… It might make good TV but it doesn’t make a good playing and business model.”
He added, “I think it seriously has to be looked at. We played a semi-final against a team [Bedford] who didn’t want to go to the Premiership – how does that work?”
The Aviva Premiership is known to favour a winner takes all second tier to avoid the situation that occurred in 2014 when London Welsh beat Bristol — clear winners of the division — in the play-off final to gain access to the Premiership where they didn’t look like winning a game all season.
Clearly issues will need to be addressed, but with the RFU’s normal lack of alacrity, we’re not holding our breath.