After many months of uncertainty the Greene King IPA Championship season will get underway tomorrow, albeit in a dramatically altered manner.
There were worries that the season would be cancelled altogether but thankfully the RFU have managed to ensure that the season goes ahead.
The first notable change is the season will feature only 11 teams after London Scottish decided against playing due to financial difficulties at the club.
There will also be no relegation but there will still be promotion to the Premiership. Whoever is promoted will join a 13-team Premiership for the 2021/22 season.
Last season saw Newcastle Falcons promoted while Leeds Tykes (formerly Yorkshire Carnegie) moved down to National League One.
This season, Richmond replace Tykes while Saracens, after their relegation and spectacular fall from grace last season, also join the fold.
Why are Saracens involved in the Championship?
Unless you have been living under a rugby-shaped-rock for the past year, you will know that Saracens were relegated alongside a 105-points-deduction due to salary cap breaches. They also failed to disclose player payments over a number of seasons when they were Premiership Champions.
Many of Saracens’ internationals like Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola have decided to stick with the club during this period. Conversely, younger players like Max Malins, Ben Earl and Nick Isiekwe, have been loaned out to other Premiership clubs. Whilst older players, such as Richard Wigglesworth, Alex Goode and Ben Spencer, have moved permanently from the club. In Goode’s case, he has decided to apply his trade abroad.
Saracens are the hot favourites to go back up to the Premiership but could face tough competition from the likes of Ealing Trailfinders who defeated the men in black twice in the past two months in a warm-up tournament.
There is huge excitement around teams facing Saracens and as Jersey Reds Head Coach, Harvey Biljon said: “If players and coaches don’t get excited at taking on a club who’ve won multiple domestic and European titles, there’s something wrong!”
Can Jersey get back into the top six?
The Reds have developed a reputation as a top-half championship club in recent years, claiming scalps such as London Irish, Bristol Bears and Worcester Warriors. They had a period in January where they were not able to train due to the restrictions but Biljon gives credit to the backroom staff that have made the pre-season happen.
Last year the Reds finished outside the top six in a season that was cut short by Covid. Biljon’s aim is to get the side back in the top half this season where he feels they rightfully belong.
“It was disappointing to slip out of the top six last season for the first time in five seasons, particularly when we had targeted a strong finish to the campaign only to be stopped in our tracks by the pandemic.
“We have recruited well – not just in terms of players but our new forwards coach Rob Webber (Former England, Sale Sharks, Bath and Wasps Hooker) – and our aim is to move higher up the rankings.”
The hopeful return of crowds
Last month, the UK government set out a roadmap which would hopefully see crowds return to sports events on 17th May, just as the Championship season gets into the home straight.
However, one team that is hopeful to have crowds return in April is Jersey Reds. As Jersey is an independent crown dependency and not part of the UK, there is a chance this may happen according to Biljon.
“As part of gaining approval from our government to participate in this season’s Championship, we agreed to switch two home games to the mainland, and as a result we will only play three games on home turf at Stade Santander International, starting with Nottingham on April 24th.
“We really hope that having some spectators in the ground will be possible by then, but it’s too soon to be certain. Our supporters have had a long spell without any live rugby, and it will be a special occasion to hear the boards being banged when we next run out in front of them.”
Moving back to the Championship
Richmond are back in the Championship after a season away in National League One and Steve Hill, director of rugby at Richmond, is gearing up for the upcoming season.
“As a club we’re very excited to be back in the Championship, it seems a long time ago now since we won promotion and it was a bit sad because we couldn’t celebrate the promotion in the way we’d like to,” said Hill.
One thing that Richmond can rely upon is experience in their matchday squad with the total appearances amounting to 1,100 across the side.
“I’ve been here for 11 seasons now, we’re not a team that changes from one amount of personnel to the next,” Hill said.
“We have a 35 man squad with over 1,100 appearances for the Richmond first team so that shows how a lot of these players have played at Richmond both in the Championship and National One”
Helping the community out during the pandemic
One of the commendable things Richmond have done during the pandemic is help out the local community.
Over 800 pieces of technology have been delivered to local schools since the lockdown in January, including laptops and iPads. The club has also joined in the free school meals initiative kickstarted by Footballer Marcus Rashford last year. This has been under the guidance of Dominic Palacio, Head of Community rugby at Richmond which Hill describes as ‘outstanding’ and stressed the importance of helping the community out during these difficult times.
“It’s very important we do that because we are in the heart of Richmond and we love to interact with the people around us. It doesn’t surprise me what we’ve done but I do take my hat off to Dom and the people around him for masterminding it all.”
London Scottish’ absence
Both Biljon and Hill agree that London Scottish will be missed this season. This is particularly pertinent for Hill given that both Richmond and Scottish have ground-shared at the Athletic Ground for the past 100 years, and this season was due to be the final one there for Scottish.
“I respect London Scottish’s decision and it’s a great pity because probably besides Saracens, the next fixture people look for will be the London Scottish game,” Hill said.
“We respect their decision, they’ll be in the Championship next season but as they feel by a financial point of view it doesn’t make sense for them to take part.”
The season finally going ahead
Whatever happens in this Championship season, both directors are grateful that the season is going ahead after many months of uncertainty.
“From our point of view, we are grateful that we will get a season” Hill said.
Biljon added: “There has been a collective determination to get the season started as soon as possible, and we’re pleased to be closing in on our first league match. The 11 clubs taking part will be very keen to showcase what the second tier has to offer.”
Despite a tough time getting to this point, we should all be grateful that the Championship is back.
Feature Image Credit: Alasdair Massie