English rugby cannot quietly stand back and let the Championship season collapse
The decision to offer loans and not grants to English Rugby’s second tier will come at a price, it appears. Ampthill, the Bedfordshire side, who recently rose through the ranks to Greene King IPA Championship status, have already thrown their hands up. With huge Covid testing costs and, as a club, the inability to generate enough money to make any loan repayment process sensible, it seems they will forgo any part in the league proposed to restart on Saturday 6th March.
It is an early shot fired from one of twelve parties brought together to try and make sense of a Championship season. They will not be alone. While, perhaps, by my reckoning, half the league might be in a position to restart, there are a few who will find things too tricky. And just to confirm, this is a loan they are being offered. They will have a repayment process laid out to them, which could well make playing games (especially behind close doors) utterly pointless. Some of these clubs could lose as much as £50,000 just by stepping out on the pitch. No business would enter into such an agreement and should not be blamed for stepping away.
However, the Championship is very complex. And the solution to keep it alive equally as tricky a puzzle. It is not just a league below the Premiership. It is the best of the rest of a sport stretched and pulled in every way conceivable since professionalism in 1995. And what a ragtag and bobtail, yet adorable and commendable, bunch they are. A league bullied season after season by the parachute-payment-funded thirteenth top-tier side; a league routinely neglected and undernourished by their governing body; a league where the best players are cherry-picked from teams who have worked hard to develop them and no heed is offered by those who benefit.
But it is also a league of players who love their rugby more than any; playing for so little remuneration, it must only be love, love from the most earnest of hearts. This is also a league of fans who have a special and close-knit affinity with their teams, one that any weather and any run-down stadia cannot perturb, and, despite being told time and again that their rugby isn’t as good as others, still, patiently queue up at each rusty turnstile and scream their faces red at every contentious decision. This is a league of clubs who have a legion of devoted staff who often clean, cook, wash, carry and shovel for nothing more than a nod, a pint of beer and pat on the back. This is a league of clubs who, in their own way, are contributing, donating and doing what they can for their surrounding community, because that is what sport is really about; not being the best, but being together.
All those clubs need and want slightly different things. They all want to survive and you can only trust each organisation to make the decision that is right for them to ensure that that happens but, and you will need to hear me out here, the Championship must be played this year.
Why? Believe it or not, I think this is an opportunity for the Championship. These clubs have a chance to become a very important beacon in communities, who need them now more than ever; a focal point for neighbourhoods so badly affected by what has happened this last twelve months. If available, this chance should be grasped as people start to rebuild their lives and find each other. Places to belong and say you are a part of are going to be vital as we search for normality once more. This season, if it were to begin, would be very special. And people need to be part of something special right now.
And there could be new revenue streams too. Both local and national, and if possible, clubs should do what they can to explore these and see what a refocused business outlook can see in them. Workforces are changing and will continue to alter and businesses will be looking for new ways to support and be a part of sporting projects. The pandemic has also given some clubs the ways and means to explore live streaming, which previously felt out of reach, and this could be a new way to get the league out to people and develop its brand. Not a brand that competes with the Premiership, but one that is slightly different; with different narratives and characters and yet lots of excitement. The top table is fantastic but that doesn’t mean the Championship can’t have its own table, with its own small slice of wonderful (cow) pie.
And maybe more mundanely, more seriously, if the Championship doesn’t get going, what will the clubs have to give back? Agreements are already in place, money given – will the clubs have to return these monies if there is no season? The furlough scheme is not enough to keep the staff of these clubs afloat for too much longer, so the league must try and make good on its promise on all agreements and contracts. I don’t think it would be wrong of me to suggest that some clubs will have already spent all of the money of multi-year deals.
If the Championship doesn’t come to be this year, what will they return to in September – still the Greene King IPA Championship or will it be an amateur National One set up? How will things look with a whole season lost to the ether? To fold now may see everything slip from the grasp and disappear for good.
And lastly but perhaps most importantly, we need to try and get going for the players. These men, these poor men, who have had the last year ripped out from them, some arguably in their prime, need a platform to play. They need a chance to keep their dream alive and keep plugging away at a sport to which they have given so much, and that has so many memories and soul-nourishing moments left to give. Among this current crop of Championship players is the next Piers O’Conor or Alex Lewington or Harry Williams or Jake Polledri or Alex Lozowski. A player just an opportunity away from playing at the top of their sport. Naturally altruistic, this sport needs this league to happen for the good of others: the good of the players.
Ampthill has asked for help. Doncaster and Coventry reached out a few months ago. I know nearly every other club in the league will be doing the same in some way over the next few days and weeks. I hope something can be done. I hope a way forward can be found. That we, as a group of people who love this game, the wider sporting family, can find a path.
Because Championship Rugby is not about you or me. It is about us. It is about everyone. Championship Rugby has fought this far and cannot be allowed to go under just yet. Beaten and bloodied, it has kept its head unbowed and continued to punch above its weight. Providing rugby with its much needed tomorrows, as well as looking after its cherished yesterdays. English Rugby needs the Championship now, more than ever. If it is possible, it must be allowed to take place.
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