The Championship launch took place in Bury St Edmunds with what is shaping up to be the highest quality season to date
The Championship raises the bar
They came from all points west: Chris Morgan, of the Pirates, stayed overnight in Ipswich to break the seven-hour journey from Cornwall. Plymouth’s Iain Grieve stopped over in Bristol, while Alex Rae almost missed the photocall after being delayed from Jersey.
Bury St Edmunds, the Suffolk market town that is home to worthy sponsors, was honoured to welcome all 12 of the captains and notables this week for a low-key launch to the Greene King IPA Championship season.
The players easily outnumbered the reporters present and the modest scale of the media event struck an ironic note, for the standard of the competition has never been higher. Just look at Bristol, represented here by a Grand Slam-winning captain and now reinforced by a trio of other Welsh internationals in Ian Evans, Dwayne Peel and Matthew Morgan, plus sizzling Samoans Anthony Perenise and David Lemi.
Ryan Jones, recuperating still from the broken leg that ruined his and Bristol’s play-off final in May, had caught the train from Swansea to attend. He said all the right things, of course, and had special praise for Bristol’s new forwards coach, Danny Wilson.
“I went to university with Danny and I’m a huge fan of his. He has great understanding of the game and he’s very detailed. He reminds me of Lyn Jones. He’s a fresh voice and he’ll be a huge asset to us.”
Bristol racked up 21 bonus points on their way to topping the table last season, more than Newcastle (2012-13) and Worcester (2010-11) when they crushed all-comers in promotion-winning campaigns. They’ve won the league three times since the Championship adopted a 12-team professional structure five years ago, yet keep tripping up in the dreaded play-offs.
“Take the play-off tag off it and they’re just one-off games – that should be the mentality,” says Jones, who hopes to return by late October. “We need to play the Bristol way but with more game management; a different emphasis on kicking – when we kick and what type of kick. We have a good pack and should try to utilize that again.”
It seems that no matter what position a club finished last season, a giant broom has swept new players in through the door and brushed existing ones aside. So many new faces abound in the RFU’s second tier that predicting a final ranking is a fiendish task. But everyone agrees that the top four will include Bristol and Worcester, who meet on Sunday in a potential humdinger at Bristol’s new Ashton Gate base.
“Those two should be head and shoulders above the rest,” says the Pirates’ Morgan, “so it will be ten teams competing for the other two play-off places. And any of them can do it.”
Worcester have released 14 and signed 17, so to some extent DoR Dean Ryan must start again. “It’s very exciting to see the direction the club is moving,” says their England full-back Chris Pennell. “We have such good young talent, like Sam Smith and Charlie Mulchrone and Ryan Bower. They’re all hungry to be successful and we’ve added senior players like Andries Pretorius and Gerrit-Jan van Velze.
“Physically we’re in better shape than we’ve ever been and yet the conditioning team plans for us to make more gains so that we’re flying at the end of the season. I can’t put into words how positive it all is.”
The interviews came thick and fast, every man sanguine about his team’s prospects. Jersey survived by the skin of their teeth last season but have recruited Aussies and Argentinians, and learnt about the history of the island so as to connect better with the place and its people. “We don’t want to just scrape by again,” says Rae.
Nottingham, tenth last term, have some bright young backs from Leicester and reckon on climbing the table after a rebuilding year. Bedford, equally disappointed with ninth last season, have beefed up the pack to remedy set-piece deficiencies, while London Scottish believe they can improve on fifth if only they avoid the dire performances that cost them dear at Bedford and Nottingham in January.
Moseley finished seventh in 2013-14, a magnificent effort by the only part-time squad in the division. “We train on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, with a skills session on Wednesday mornings,” says Mike Powell, captain and mortgage broker.
For the first time, the Midlanders have a commercial manager and there’s a brand-new BMW on offer to the Player of the Month – quite an incentive to players not earning the big bucks available elsewhere.
In a bid to bring in more fans, Leeds Carnegie (third) have become Yorkshire Carnegie, though the L word is sure to slip out for months to come. And Cornish Pirates (sixth) are waiting for a swanky new stadium in Truro, due – fingers crossed – to be in place two years hence. “Without a stadium there’s nothing for the club to play for,” says Morgan, painfully aware that their current ground doesn’t meet promotion criteria.
I didn’t quite complete the circuit because the other captains had headed for home, to prepare for what will surely be a campaign to savour.
2014-15 Greene King IPA Championship Round 1 fixtures
Nottingham v Bedford Blues, Fri 5 Sept (8pm)
Doncaster v Plymouth Albion, Sat 6 Sept (2.30pm)
London Scottish v Rotherham, Sat 6 Sept (3pm)
Moseley v Jersey, Sat 6 Sep 6 (3pm)
Bristol v Worcester, Sun 7 Sept (2.40pm, live on Sky)
Cornish Pirates v Yorkshire Carnegie, Sun 7 Sept (3pm)