Former Wales outside half Paul Turner has helped take Ampthill from the English rugby backwaters to stand alongside former European champions Saracens in the Championship, and now faces a race against time to get the players ready for the toughest season in the club’s history.
The dramatic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the club at a time when they are formulating plans for a new stadium a mile from their current Bedfordshire home, which could include a 10,000 capacity arena. This ambitious plan would transform a club that has swapped fixtures against Sandbach and Sutton Coldfield for Newcastle and Saracens.
Now, Turner, the head coach at Ampthill, finds his club in a new-look Championship season that sees the 12 teams split into two conferences with 10 home and away matches scheduled to start on March 6. Ampthill and Saracens are in Conference A, which also involves trips to Jersey and Cornwall if a relaxation of the current travel and tier restrictions allows home and away matches to be completed to produce a play-off to find the promoted team.
However, Ampthill will have to wait until January 16 to discover if they will receive the funding from Sport England in the Sport Winter Survival Package which is necessary to cover the £20,000 a month to put their players on the same COVID-19 testing programmes as the Premiership clubs to ensure they can take part in the new season.
Ampthill have the smallest budget and are the smallest club in the Championship and it will be a year since their last match when they finally get this season underway in March.
Their story highlights the very human effects of the pandemic on the second tier of the sport in England and Turner told RugbyPass: “We would have loved to have started on January 24 but we couldn’t afford the testing and six or seven clubs are the same. We should know on January 16 about what funds we will have for testing.
“As a result of the lockdown we had to release a lot of players and then start to rebuild the squad. You put a plan together with an expected start time in September, then January, and now it is March. Our squad has been on furlough and during the period we have only done Stage One training, six against six and no contact.
“We have done about 10 Saturday morning sessions and now with the news we will look to ease our way into Stage Two, which is contact. We are probably the smallest club and others will be different with Saracens and Ealing Trailfinders having played already. We couldn’t afford to do what other clubs have done.
“At the moment we have 25-30 players and I have been talking to Premiership sides about loan players. In the past we have had Ben Earl and Nick Isiekwe with us from Sarries. Once we start testing, you then have the scenario of players possibly moving from one bubble to another.
“We have a really good relationship with Bedford who are in the other conference and we will aim to play some warm up games. We have come through the leagues from National Three and could have a new stadium in the next two years a mile from where we are now.”
Turner’s coaching team at Ampthill includes Mauritz Botha, the former England and Saracens lock who helped coach the German national team in their bid to reach the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
At Ampthill, the famous walk from their dressing rooms through the woods to the first team pitch highlights the very different challenges and scenarios Saracens will encounter in the second tier of the English game.
Turner is hoping Nigel Melville can help solve the “problem child” of English rugby by giving the Championship a viable future.
Melville, the former head of professional rugby at the Rugby Football Union, has been made executive chairman of two important committees at Premiership Rugby – the umbrella organisation for England’s top clubs. The relationship between the top two tiers of English rugby, including the thorny issue of promotion and relegation, will be one of the major headaches Melville has to solve.
Former Saracens CEO Edward Griffiths was tasked with putting a radical plan together for the future of the Championship but that was scrapped and Turner added: “I thought the Edward Griffiths plan was pretty good at the time and we will have to look back in time to see how viable it was. It may have frightened people.
“The two conferences is something that I thought was the way to go this season, with a January start.
“In effect we are – if it was a normal season – in June preparing for a September start and that is how are looking at this season. I have been talking to Premiership sides about loans for players who will be looking for rugby and last year we had five or six for one game.”
Saracens, Cornish Pirates, Ampthill, Jersey Reds, London Scottish, Hartpury University
Ealing Trailfinders, Coventry, Nottingham, Bedford Blues, Doncaster Knights, Richmond
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