This weekend's Championship shocker evidence RFU must now act
2023 is the most important year for rugby in England. The previous three have been the most damaging so, perhaps naturally, the emergence from the wreckage is key. And while many will feel I’m talking about the top, the place where so many eyes are drawn, I am not. What the governing body decides to do with the Championship is a far more crucial decision.
This weekend, you won’t have scrolled too far on social media without seeing the news that Caldy beat Ealing Trailfinders. It was sporting manna from heaven: the plucky upstart felling the experienced giant; Scouse Davey’s haymaker catching the capital Goliath’s jutting chin.
Now let’s get one thing straight. Ealing are a good side. One the Championship are lucky to have. They have been magnanimous in defeat and never take the league for granted. Ben Ward will tell you till he’s blue in the face how hard he has to work his men to win like they do each week. And 99 times out of 100 they beat Caldy. But sport, as Dave Brailsford will often say, is about the 1 per cent. That’s where the joy sits. Where hope settles. And from where Caldy’s stinking hangover emanates.
Below is footage of Caldy’s winning score. Clunky though it is from a single wide camera angle, high up in the stands, complete with overly loud ref’s mic. But observe the unbridled joy. Not of the players, hooping and hollering at their keystone score, but beyond the dead ball line, beyond the pitch. A group of dancing youngsters who bound into view. Delirious at having seen what they’ve seen; at having watched their team do the unthinkable. It makes your heart leap. For sport is so often in the eye of the beholder. Woods, Stokes, Chloe Kelly last summer: we do not delight so much in the skill, than in the rapture of everyone who witnessed it, themselves included.
— Championship Rugby (@Champrugby) January 7, 2023
But why is 2023 so important? Because the RFU has a huge chance to make a good decision. And my word it needs some of those. There are too many good sides in England’s second tier to keep on ignoring them. The rugby alone would interest any try-scoring advocate. But they do it all on a shoestring. And have continued to do so for a while. Surely some reward is due for just staying alive?
You cannot say that about the fabled thirteen of the Premiership. Money troubles are everywhere at the moment but the second tier of English rugby has kept its powder dry. The prize it seems is to welcome two clubs who were unable to do that on the more lucrative and well imbursed floor above. Hartpury, Bedford, Coventry et al will smile sweetly as Worcester and Wasps are given a spot at the table they have worked so hard to stay at.
But with these two potential additions, how much more the narrative grows? We need to widen the berth of rugby in this country; we need to be talking about the Jerseys and the Nottinghams of this land as much as the Harlequins and the Leicesters.
We need to broadcast this. Get a weekly show together on the BBC. Just put it on iPlayer for all I care. We digest most of our TV on record anyway. Invest a million pounds into a highlights show that gets the word out there. Don’t worry about making any money back off sponsors or rights, just put a chunk of money into getting rugby into people’s sitting rooms. That million pounds will quickly turn into £2 million return for the clubs. Increased exposure means slowly but surely more people start showing up. More and more people start saying to each other on a Monday morning – “have you seen the Donny Pirates game yet? It’s a cracker!”
Get footage shared on social media. Get the big RFU channels to push things out. So much of sport is now digested on your phone. England Rugby Facebook sharing tries of the week from the Championship (I know, I can’t believe this doesn’t happen already!) would do wonders. Not in the short term, but slowly and surely; it would work.
I’ve said this before but when a brand like Coca-Cola bring out a new drink, they don’t expect people to just hand over their money and drink it. They send millions of cans out into supermarket giveaways for free. They know they have to get it out there if there is any chance they will sell it in the future. The RFU have previously baulked at giving away the rights to Championship Rugby for free but you can’t expect someone to pay for anything they’ve not already tried. This is the decision they need to make in 2023. Get the Championship (their top league) out to people. Then you will start to see what it is worth to investors, not the other way around.
I’m sure there will be many who have stakes in lower league rugby or grassroots rugby who will respond to this request with ‘what about us?’ It is true. The Champ is only one of many areas of the game the governing body needs to help. But we need to start somewhere. And if the Champ investment proves a success then other areas will benefit.
I hope this happens. Not for me, or those involved in or already following Championship rugby teams. But for the kids bounding around behind the posts in Caldy. Because they are who this sport is really about.
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