New-look Championship battle awaits
August 26, 2009
RFU elite director Rob Andrew is keen to ensure the future success of the England national side © Getty Images
English rugby's Championship was officially launched at Twickenham today along with a ground-breaking but potentially controversial play-off system offering the ultimate prize - a place in the Guinness Premiership.
The 12-team competition, formerly known as National League One, will kick off next month and will dovetail with the new British & Irish Cup to provide England's second tier with what officials hope will become the perfect stepping stone to the top flight.
Rugby Football Union chief executive Francis Baron hailed the tournament as part of an, "exciting new future" for the game - but its credibility could well be undermined by a play-off structure that offers a team finishing eighth in the regular season the chance to claim the sole Premiership place on offer.
However, as expected, the emphasis was very much on the positive at the season launch that promised much for everyone involved - from the teams to the fans and even the national side.
For many of those clubs lucky enough to have secured Championship status the most welcome reward is not the chance to be promoted to the Premiership, as that remains a distant dream for the majority due to the lack of a level playing field, but the increased financial security.
Nottingham, Birmingham & Solihull and London Welsh are just three Championship sides that have been plagued by financial woes in recent times but all 12 clubs will welcome the significant increase in revenue that the new-look league has generated.
The slim-downed division, reduced from the 16 teams that competed for last season's National League One title eventually won by Leeds Carnegie, will benefit from a 39% increase in funding from the RFU. However, with fewer clubs demanding a share in that windfall that actually means an 86% increase per club to the tune of £192,000 per year.
In addition, Sky Sports have added the Championship to their already impressive portfolio of rugby tournaments under the RFU's existing contract with the satellite broadcaster. That six-year deal that will not only guarantee at least 11 games broadcast live each season - taking the league to a whole new audience - but will also see the clubs receive another priceless financial injection.
Baron also revealed that the RFU were in advanced negotiations with sponsors, including a potential title sponsor, with any further revenue also set to pass directly to the clubs.
Another significant change will see clubs rewarded financially for those players honoured with selection for the England Elite Squad, the England Saxons, England U20s or England 7s. Last season those clubs stripped of players called up for international duty received no compensation of any kind but will now benefit from the same scheme currently in operation in the Premiership.
This latter incentive to nurture England-qualified talent is part of a wider drive by the RFU to develop talent at all levels of the game. As a result clubs will be rewarded on their balance sheets for the development of not only players but coaches and referees.
"The Championship will provide quality rugby for spectators as well as developing players, coaches and referees in a competitive and professional environment," said RFU Elite Rugby Director Rob Andrew.
But it is the playing talent that remains the main focus for the RFU with officials keen to stress the fact that the Championship will be a vital part of the structure of rugby in the country.
"Ten of England's U20 squad at this year's World Championship in Japan, including captain Calum Clark (Leeds Carnegie) and Henry Trinder (Moseley) played in this league last season, so it plays a vital role in the future of the England team," insisted Andrew.
National League One's reputation as a production line for top quality players is not in question having not only propelled the U20s to back to back world championship finals - the first England teams to reach age-grade finals - but also provided the England 7s side with the likes of Kevin Barrett and Josh Drauniniu (both formerly of Exeter) and James Rodwell (Moseley).
This abundance of talent along with the RFU's incentive scheme appears to be having the desired effect in terms of ensuring home-grown talent holds its own in the face of a perceived foreign invasion. The transfer of centre Tim Molenaar from Nottingham to Gloucester this week made him the 23rd player to make the move from what was National League One to the Premiership this summer as opposed to the 24 lured from overseas - one of whom was England international Ben Cohen.
And this process is set to become even more important with the RFU's 'core' funding set to be replaced by a set-up that primarily rewards clubs for the delivery of England-qualified players and coaches.
The aim is to eventually create a level playing field within the Championship but that is not going to happen overnight - such is the current chasm between the league's haves and have nots. The parachute payment awarded to the club dropping out of the top flight will continue to soften the blow of relegation and work against the RFU's hopes for a level playing field.
This financial cushion has encouraged a yo-yo effect in recent years that has proven to be a significant barrier to other sides with Premiership aspirations but not the spending power to get them there. As a result Bristol, who dropped out of the top flight last season, are tipped for a strong showing in the Championship this season although the west country side are seen by some as vulnerable due to their own financial problems.
This would open the door for the likes of Exeter who were edged out for the National League One crown last season. The Chiefs boast an impressive ground at Sandy Park that would not look out of place in the Premiership - a luxury few of their rivals can boast.
The Championship winners will also still need to meet the minimum requirements in terms of ground specification to be assured of their place in the Premiership and this fact, rather than any play-off drama, is most likely to put paid to any ambition.
The new-look format kicks off on September 4 and will culminate with the play-off final at Twickenham on May 8 next year.
How the Championship works:
Reduction from 16 to 12 clubs: Bedford Blues, Birmingham & Solihull, Bristol Rugby, Cornish Pirates, Coventry, Doncaster Knights, Exeter Chiefs, London Welsh, Moseley, Nottingham Rugby, Plymouth Albion, Rotherham Titans
League programme (22 matches):
Promotion play-offs (8 matches):
Relegation play-offs (6 matches):