The Championship has become renowned as a perennial breeding ground for developing rugby stars of the future. In the case of Exeter Chiefs and Bristol Bears, clubs that are now regular diners at the top table of domestic competition in this country, they built the foundations for their recent success in the second tier, writes Gareth Davies.
This, it appears, could now be a thing of the past as storm clouds bigger than those brought by Ciara or Dennis blew over the competition on Tuesday.
Uncertainty for the Championship is nothing new as perpetual talk of ring-fencing the top tier by abolishing promotion and relegation never seems far away.
It could be argued, in fact, that the Premiership becoming a closed shop has happened already given the huge parachute payments given to relegated Premiership clubs. Sadly, that will be a subject revisited on another day, because ring-fencing is more a case of when rather than if.
That really will hammer the death nail into Championship rugby although events of this week have seen the competition slide even closer to the edge.
Despite all the good that a thriving – for the most part – second tier competition does, this has been conveniently forgotten by the erstwhile bean counters at the RFU. It was announced, to shock, dismay and anger on Tuesday, via e-mail, just hours before the clubs met to discuss funding, that it would be cut from £530,000 to £288,000 – a reduction of almost 50 per cent.
As the week has rumbled on, each club has taken its turn to condemn the actions of the RFU and the incredibly contradictory comments made by their chief executive Bill Sweeney.
Understandably, those with the biggest outgoings and ambitions of grandest nature were those most dismayed. None more so than here in the West Country in Penzance where the Cornish Pirates, a club that 25 years ago were wallowing around in Western Counties and a financial mess, who have benefited from substantial investment from Kenyan-based businessman Dicky Evans, headed the queue of discontent.
Despite Evans’ continual financial support, the Pirates, pictured, are now left with a gaping hole of close to £250,000 in their budget for next season. The club’s emphatic stance when speaking to The Indy this week that they will stay professional and honour all contracts, but Evans’ pockets are only so deep.
Cuts, you would imagine, will be made in other areas and it will surely impact the ambition of the Pirates emulating their Devon neighbours Exeter Chiefs in breaking the Premiership’s imaginary glass celling. Bristol, backed by the wealth of Steve Lansdown broke through two years ago, the first since Exeter did a decade ago.
The next side to follow suit may have to wait a lot longer, if another ever gets to the promised land at all. It has cost Evans a considerable amount to get the Pirates even this far, with the only crumb of comfort meaning he is unlikely to throw the towel in now.
The RFU in their brief, but far reaching statement, with quotes attributed to Sweeney, said that a drop of £200,000, for clubs like Pirates and Ealing Trailfinders, in their pursuit of a Premiership place, wouldn’t be a ‘deciding factor’ for those with ambitions
It said: “Ultimately the difference in the levels of funding between the current agreement and our new commitment will not be the deciding factor for clubs with aspirations for promotion and will always require additional investment.
“The gateway is still open for clubs to get into the Premiership if they have the necessary financial resources and meet the minimum standards required.”
While Sweeney’s soundbites may be true to a certain extent, the cuts are a little harder to stomach for those who relied massively on central funding such as Nottingham or London Scottish.
It is also an incredibly naive view for the RFU to counter any misgivings at their decisions based on the wealth of certain clubs, that should still absolve the cuts.
Overall, the Championship has been left in a precarious position by the governing body, the guardians of the game who, unlike the Premiership, have complete control over the second tier.
What happens next is possibly the 50 million dollar question and it would be a huge surprise if some clubs were now forced to go part time.
Playing standards would certainly drop and the gap between Championship and Premiership, which has been increasing with every passing year, would quickly inflate to a colossal level.
Sending up and coming youngsters to the Championship could therefore now become a fruitless exercise.
Whereas sending a young, fresh faced Jack Nowell to play in the Championship to ready him for a Premiership career and beyond was absolutely the right thing to do a decade ago, that may not be the case for much longer.
When the previous funding deal was agreed in 2016, with plenty of money swilling round in the RFU’s coffers after a successful World Cup, there was much talk about creating a proper pathway to the Premiership for players, coaches and every facet of the game.
That it appears to have been abandoned in favour of drastic belt tightening which has been dressed up as a failure to meet certain targets – something the Pirates and every other club have disputed. The clubs’ decision on the long-term future for themselves and the competition will be both intriguing and history defining, but this sorry mess reaffirms the belief that the RFU don’t care about rugby beyond elite level.