Reigning Championship winners Jersey Reds are facing oblivion after ceasing trading
The last time Harvey Biljon picked up the phone four months ago, he was on top of the world. The South African director of rugby had crowned a decade at the helm of Jersey Reds by taking the Channel Islanders to the first Championship title in their history. It was no small feat and way ahead of an already ambitious schedule.
The mood could not be more different this time around. Jersey announced that the club had ceased trading on Wednesday afternoon and said “liquidation appears inevitable unless a solution can be found in the very short term”. They are the fourth major English side to go bust in just 12 months after Premiership trio Worcester Warriors, Wasps and London Irish.
Biljon was forced to message the playing group at just before 6am on Thursday morning to summon them to the club for an emergency meeting where chairman Mark Morgan broke the news. Players had been expecting to fly to the mainland at 9.20am ahead of Friday night’s game against Cornish Pirates which was subsequently cancelled.
“I had an inkling something was happening but I didn’t have all the information,” Biljon tells Rugby World. “The chairman said we are going to cease trading and then gave an opportunity for questions. I led on the questions as I was pretty frustrated and angry but that’s the difficult point because it didn’t provide any clarity or understanding.
“The players were gone. There were some guys in tears, some shaking heads. I can’t describe the atmosphere to you. There was bits of anger but not immediately. People would be forgiven for acting out of character but the way the playing group conducted themselves was very good.”
In a statement, Morgan blamed the lack of information provided by the RFU regarding the future of the Championship for the failure of talks with new and existing investors, saying: “Championship clubs have been left in the dark since that point and this led to a growing fatigue among those who may have invested, but could not be given any concrete assurance about when the new structure would come in, or how it would be funded.”
The new Professional Game Agreement (PGA) being negotiated is set to create a viable way forward for the English second tier, in the shape of a Premiership 2, but nothing definitive has been agreed.
In response to Jersey’s news, the RFU insisted Championship representatives have been included in PGA negotiations, saying: “The Championship has been fully involved in these discussions since February which are aimed at stabilising and strengthening the professional game.”
However, Biljon confirmed the only contact he’d had from the game’s governing body was an email last Monday in which Conor O’Shea, the RFU’s executive performance director of rugby, invited all the Championship DoRs to discuss the PGA and Premiership 2 at Twickenham on Tuesday 10 October.
“I’m in the trenches each week with my squad, I’ve been in the Championship just with Jersey for ten years,” he said. “I think I know how the competition works, you’d like to think somebody would ask me my opinion.”
Biljon admits he has barely slept since the announcement as he desperately tries to save the club from oblivion just a few weeks after they claimed an impressive top-flight scalp by beating Bath away in the Premiership Rugby Cup.
He is reaching out to any potential lifelines but admits he will not stand in the way of any players who receive other offers. “I can’t tell players to hold on, it would be very unfair of me,” Biljon said.
Championship clubs’ central funding was dramatically slashed by 40% in 2020 with clubs going from receiving £488,000 to £280,000. The RFU phased the reduction so clubs faced a hit of £135,000 to their coffers in 2020-21.
Biljon hinted that the current Jersey shortfall is roughly the same amount as the difference in RFU funding they were forced to swallow. “That reduction in funding is obviously a key factor in this situation,” he said.
Harvey Biljon on Jersey government
The Reds DoR took aim at the Jersey government, who he identified as the secret investor that pulled out of the club late – which it denies, for failing to support the island’s only professional sport.
“I think it’s a real shame the Jersey government hasn’t supported us. Everyone was behind us winning the Championship, they could have had a different position,” he said.
Jersey minister for sport Lucy Stephenson revealed the government gave the club £370,000 of emergency grants in the last three months but that was to give them more time to find private investment and find a “sustainable footing”.
She said in a public statement the government “could not commit” to further funds due to other public purse constraints and in fairness to other sports and businesses on the island. However, Biljon revealed to Rugby World that in a meeting with Ms Stephenson, she told him: “Why would I support a rich sport like rugby?”
Rugby World approached Ms Stephenson and in response she said: “Emotions have been running high since Jersey Reds announced it had ceased trading, and my thoughts continue to be primarily with those directly affected, like the players, coaches and other staff and their families. However, there has also been a lot of misinformation shared about the Government of Jersey’s role and it is important that is corrected.
“Harvey has just seen the club he loves stop trading, and he and all his players out of a job. He is under a great deal of pressure and of course I sympathise with him. I also appreciate that it is a natural reaction to seek to find someone to blame. However, his ongoing attempts to present the collapse of Jersey Reds as the fault of government or me personally are misplaced.
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“Harvey joined part of a meeting I attended, along with one of my officers, with two of the directors of Jersey Reds, Mark Chown and Mark Morgan, in November 2022. It was an informal meeting but the subject of funding was raised. I made it clear that there was no budget for further government support for Jersey Reds nor would it be my political priority to secure funding to continue to support the club, which was a private business.
“I expressed my desire to work towards reducing barriers and inequalities in sport in Jersey, and this included treating all clubs and sports in a fairer way than had been the case in the past. Meanwhile, the local amateur rugby scene in Jersey continues to grow and thrive, and it has my full support.”
Also in the original statement, Ms Stephenson said that “no decision is taken lightly”, but the one to deny the Reds further government funding has come under question due to the significant windfall the rugby side generates for the island.
Chairman Morgan previously estimated the value of the Reds to the island to be £5million while Harvey Biljon suggested it was £6.5m. An independent review from a few years ago that was mentioned in the 2020-23 Government Plan had it at “up to £2.1m”.
Given their perilous financial situation, Biljon sought to clarify that the club spend within their playing budget, under £1million for the squad with an average wage of just £25,000, and have not overreached on that front.
The Reds have set up an independent relief fund, of which Harvey Biljon is a co-signatory, to try and cover the club’s September payroll. Details can be found here.
The 2023-24 Championship season is due to start on 21 October.