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Exclusive interview with Ben Ward

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'This is a massive call that will dictate what happens for the next 25 years in English rugby'

In a week that has seen renewed calls for promotion and relegation between the Gallagher Premiership and Greene King IPA Championship to be scrapped, you could forgive Championship clubs for feeling a bit nervous.

With Ealing Trailfinders sitting just four points off the top in the second tier of English rugby, and promotion the carrot at the end of the stick, the club’s director of rugby, Ben Ward, has taken these latest calls to ringfence in relaxed fashion.

“I think it’s something they want to push for. Why wouldn’t they? You’ve got 13 shareholders who want to protect their own interests, so I understand why they’re pushing for it.”

“I think it’s an interesting dynamic of how the game is run in this country, that there’s a lot of control to those clubs, to those shareholders, to the owners.”

“It won’t happen midseason, it just can’t. From our point of view, we’d vigorously fight against it, for obvious reasons. I think if you look at Nick Kennedy’s comments when he was at London Irish in the Premiership, he was all for ringfencing, and then when he left Irish, he said that no, he wasn’t really for it. I’m sure if you were sat here talking to me and we were in the Premiership right now, I’d be saying to you, yeah, ringfence. Again, for obvious reasons!”

“I think that this is a massive call that’ll dictate what happens for the next 25 or 30 years in English rugby. If you look at some of the sides at the moment and the debt they are racking up, Wasps for example, is this CVC deal just going to bail them out? Or is it that in six- or seven-years’ time, they go bust and then there’s no team that can make that step up?”

“My argument would be, and I think there was a suggestion that they could shut off promotion for five years and then see who’s ready, is that in five years’ time, if they’re getting £6m funding a year, that’s £30 million. If we’re getting half a million for that period, that’s less than £3m. How are you supposed to close the gap with that funding level difference?”

“There are subtle changes that have been made. The playoffs have gone. They’re now talking about promotion and relegation. I believe the next thing that will come in, in terms of the subtle way of doing it, will be a playoff between the top of the Championship and bottom of the Premiership. Once that starts to happen, they may turn around and say we’ll cut it off for five years. They know what they’re doing.”

“I think it’s wrong and we will very much fight it if it does happen, so we’ll just have to wait and see. I’d like to think the people at the RFU would protect the interests of the English game, rather than just the 13 shareholders. It’s a shame that Steve Brown has just left, as he was a big supporter of the Championship, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens there. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

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With the group of clubs belonging to Premier Rugby Limited (PRL) having dropped to 13 sides, following Yorkshire Carnegie’s loss of shares through a combination of having been out of the Premiership for a significant period of time and a forced sale to Exeter a few years ago, the opportunity for Ealing to join that group is one Ward would relish.

“We haven’t been asked. I know there was talk of 14 teams. We’d love to be considered.”

“If they offered us the opportunity, we’d be very happy to buy some shares in the Premiership at the moment. We want to grow – we’re no way near the finished article yet.”

“We’re still growing off the field and we’re still looking at various stadium options, both in terms of the longer-term and what we’d do next year if we were able to go up this season. We’d love to be involved, but we have had no contact from the Premiership whatsoever.”

“The biggest disappointment for us is that we don’t hear from them. Why not come down and have a look at what we have got? Give us some advice on what we could improve and what you’d like to see from us in order to be included in the next couple of years, and we’d work towards that.”

“We’d love to be involved and to try and improve what the Premiership is. I’m not saying we’d be perfect, and, in the current state of play, I think we’d yoyo a bit, but at some point, like Bristol are doing now, you try and make that step up.”

Mike Brown of Harlequins is tackled by Alun Walker of Ealing during the Harlequins v Ealing Trailfinders pre-season friendly at Twickenham Stoop. (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images for Harlequins)

Ealing are clearly not dwelling on that disappointment, though, with plans in place to take the club forward off the pitch, as well as on it.

A partnership was recently set up with Brunel University which has the scope to help Ealing deal with the fact they do not have recruiting grounds and a PRL U18 academy, as well as creating a niche for themselves in terms of attracting some of the top young talent around.

The club have set themselves a target of getting Brunel to BUCS Super Rugby and the partnership includes bursaries for players on the programme, financial assistance for tuition and accommodation and a host of other rugby benefits from the link-up between the two entities.

“I think it’s extremely realistic [getting to BUCS Super Rugby]. You haven’t got another programme like it in London. You’ve got a lot of good programmes in the BUCS Super Rugby competition and what we want to do is link that in with our set-up here. If that means there are players training with us full-time during the summer and in the week around their studies, that can only be beneficial for them and the university.”

DoR Ben Ward ahead of the Championship Cup match between Ealing Trailfinders and London Scottish Football Club. Photo by David Horn.

“We will send our coaches, S&C, medical staff and analysts in there and it will be run as a full-time programme. I think it’s a fantastic competition. We signed some players from there last season and I think a lot of players now look at it as a really good route to go down. After three years, if you’re good enough, you’ll go to the Premiership or to pro rugby, but you’ve also got an education behind you. As I say, there isn’t a programme like that in London, so there’s got to be an attraction there.”

“In terms of timescales, if we could get there [to the Premiership] in three years, it gives a guy joining now, at 18, the three-to-four years to develop and we should have a nice production line coming through, to give us some strength. We’re very excited about it.”

“Part of the reason for it is that when Wasps left the area, we weren’t considered for their academy recruiting grounds. I know we’re not a Premiership shareholder, but Yorkshire Carnegie still have a Premiership academy and they are no longer a shareholder. We have tried to build an academy, but it’s very difficult to compete with the Premiership sides. By offering education, as well as full-time rugby, hopefully it has some pull. Nottingham are probably quite a good example, with what they do at Nottingham Trent.”

“It’s about sitting down with a player and their parents and saying yeah, you’ve got a one-year contract in the Premiership, but here you’ve got three years of full-time rugby guaranteed, as well as an education. If you’re good enough at the end of it, you’ll go to that level. If you’re not good enough, you’ve enjoyed yourself, you’ve got something behind you and you can either get signed by us, play National One or you’ve got your education and job opportunities.”

“There are a lot of players who go into the Premiership on one-year contracts, they might get injured and then they’re cast aside. There are a lot of late developers, too. Tom Lawday, at Exeter Chiefs, is a really good example, who’s absolutely flying now. He played at Exeter Uni and Cornish Pirates and he’s now playing very well in the Premiership.”

“I think BUCS Super Rugby will only get stronger, as well. Our ambition is to get in there and not just run a programme to the level of the other sides involved, we want to go a step further and make sure, ideally, we are doing it even better. Being in London, we feel that is a good attraction to players as well.”

“One of our targets will be the guys that are released by Premiership U18 sides. We can offer them a very good rugby programme at the university, education and then full-time rugby with us.”

Ealing have already made a significant move in this direction with the growth in their senior academy, something which is almost exclusive to Premiership clubs and those with U18 sides, fully-fleshed out junior academies and recruiting grounds.

“We have seven guys at the moment and they train completely full-time with us. They’re aged between 19 and 22.”

“There are guys who left BUCS Super Rugby, someone like Jake Ellwood has been playing really well for us this year and he’s from Northumbria. We’ve got a couple of Loughborough lads as well, a couple of Cardiff Met guys. We’ve got a young lad called Reon Joseph, who came through our system as well. A few of them are playing with Chinnor on loan this season and Reon is one of the top try-scorers in National One at 19. These guys are doing well.”

“I look at it that an 18-year-old should be playing National Two, a 19-year-old National One and then, come 20, are they ready for the Championship or Premiership? Some guys develop faster, some slower, but that’s our senior academy, and then we’d almost see Brunel as a junior academy.”

“They come in there and they’re part of that programme. Our coaches are able to look at them, the S&C guys are with them, and then preseason, outside of the university calendar rugby year, they’ll train with us full-time. Potentially, depending on what numbers we get enrolled for next season, it may be that 20 guys out of that performance squad come onboard full-time with us to make our squad a bit bigger and though they may not play straight away, with the S&C and the coaching they’ll be getting, by the time they’re 19, 20 or 21, they should be ready for first team rugby.”

“Our turnover of players has been considerable, so we want to get players coming through our own system. They may not be with us completely throughout the year, because they’ve got lectures and commitments, but come the last year or end of their degree, it’s not a new player coming in, it’s someone who’s a familiar face, knows how we coach and knows what we expect of them, and we can promote from within. One of our longer-term visions is to be able to do that.”

There has also been staff turnover, with former Ealing coach Alex Codling moving to Quins. (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images for Harlequins)

With the Brunel link and academy structure in place, Ealing are taking considerable steps to close the gap on player development and ability to promote from within that the Premiership clubs currently have. Alongside stadium issues, it is usually one of the biggest challenges facing any ambitious Championship club.

It’s not the only proactive step the club are taking, however, with their stadium situation, Vallis Way’s capacity of 3,000, often the elephant in the room when talking about Ealing as a potential Premiership club, but work is underway to change that.

“They’ve just started laying the groundworks for a new stand this week. That’ll be at the far end of the pitch and should take the capacity to five or six thousand. There are options to expand that further, as well, and for us that would be the dream, but we also know that if we were to go to the Premiership this season, we would have another option available to us.”

Moving to a new stadium can be a risky proposition, as London Welsh found out to their detriment a few years ago, but Ward doesn’t see too many comparisons between their situation and the one that Ealing would find themselves in if they could secure promotion.

“Bluntly, I see it being very different. Look at the infrastructure we have here [Vallis Way]. London Welsh, with all due respect to them, didn’t have a significant amount at Old Deer Park. We have the infrastructure here, as a training ground, that is as good as any Premiership facility. We’ve got a new gym being built as well and that’ll be done by the summer. We’re continuing to expand our set-up.”

“I’d also say that we have an incredible owner. He’s not just a guy that’s a sponsor, he owns it and he’s invested £20m into the rugby club so far. It’s part of his legacy and he wants to see it being extremely successful and playing at the top level. Whether that’s in two years’ time, 10 years’ time or 25 years’ time, it’s part of his legacy of having taken the club from where it was to where it is now.”

“We are very conscious of what happened to London Welsh, though, and when you see all the figures about what each club is losing each year in the Premiership, we do take a step back and say that we have to be careful about what we’re doing on wages and that’s another reason why we’re looking at the academy programme. I think the London Broncos are a really good example of that, having gone to Super League on a lesser budget and a thriving academy.”

“Interestingly, you look at London Irish over the last 15 years and you can have a thriving academy, but you can also then get picked off by the bigger sides, so the next challenge for us will be contending with that. If we can get this programme running well, how do we keep the players wanting to play for us longer-term and for them to be able to achieve their ambitions?”

“That then goes back to the stadium, getting promoted – the opportunity to have promotion and have that dream – and then if that’s not available to us, we will have to look at all possible options for us to make that step up. If they do ringfence, we will look at our legal options.”

The criticisms that get thrown out around Ealing are that they’re just a Championship club with a chequebook, or that they’re another London Welsh waiting to happen, but it’s clear to see there are plans in place to be much more than that.

With a refreshing realism about their current position, an owner whose financial input is significant – and a labour of love, not monetary gain – as well as visions of sustainability, it’s hard not to be excited about the journey the club is on.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are Premiership rugby clubs, but the growth and ambition of Ealing Trailfinders is a welcome respite in a year of financially-worrying news for English rugby.

Watch: The Rugby Pod discuss some South African stars who could be on their way to the Premiership.

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'This is a massive call that will dictate what happens for the next 25 years in English rugby'