Joe Harvey runs the rule over all the clubs in England’s second tier
RFU Championship team-by-team guide 2021-22 season
The RFU Championship gets back underway on 17 September and Rugby World has taken a look at each team in the division ahead of the new campaign.
Last season it was Saracens who made their way back to the Gallagher Premiership after beating Ealing Trailfinders in the two-legged final, but who will make it this time?
With relegation from the Premiership to the second division halted and National League Rugby suspended last season, there will be 11 teams competing in the Championship in the 2021-22 season, meaning that each week one club will not be competing.
In a slight adjustment to last season, there will be no play-offs to determine promotion. Instead, the top-placed side at the season’s conclusion will move directly to the Premiership and no team will drop down.
Related: RFU put a “pause” on Premiership relegation
There have been plenty of comings and goings amongst the clubs competing. Here is our RFU Championship team-by-team guide, with our thoughts on how each club will fare this season.
RFU Championship team-by-team guide 2021-22 season
Now moving into their third season in the Championship, Mark Lavery (director of rugby) and Paul Turner (head coach) have had to contend with several regular starters from last season departing for pastures new, making their hopes of improving upon their seventh-place finish all the harder.
Dave Ward has moved on to take charge of Bristol Bears Women and Syd Blackmore has joined Cornish Pirates, but former London Scottish and Wasps hookers Billy Harding and Jack Dickinson have been brought in to shore up the lineout.
In addition, Zac Nearchou and Theo Vukasinovic have been recruited for the season from Wasps, and both Henry Trinder and Tom Hudson join from Gloucester.
Trinder will also perform the role of backs coach, joining Turner and former England international Mouritz Botha on the back-room staff.
Ampthill already possess a well-drilled pack and Trinder’s arrival at the club could unleash the back-line to greater effect.
Mike Rayer’s Bedford have made a series of signings in order to better their eighth-place finish last season. Perhaps the highlight of these recruitments is the return of Dean Adamson to Goldington Road. Having represented ProD2’s Rouen last season, the wing will be hoping to add to his 82 tries for the Blues.
Scrum-half Alex Day is also heading back to Bedfordshire, the 28-year-old having had a brief spell with the club in 2019. Championship stalwarts Ollie Stedman, Luke Frost and Alex Woolford have also signed up, whilst Tui Uru (Northampton Saints) and Bailey Ransom (Newcastle Falcons) join from Premiership teams.
Bedford have re-signed local lad Rich Lane and brought back former captain Sean McCarthy as forwards coach too.
As always, the Blues will be looking to play the most exciting rugby in the division, meaning that any trip to the market town is well worth it if you’re keen to see an enthralling display of rugby.
Starting the most recent season with a win over Saracens, Cornish Pirates ended the shortened campaign in fourth. With several players having moved on, co-head coaches Alan Paver and Gavin Cattle have secured the signatures of Callum Sirker (Wasps) and Tom Kessell (Bristol).
Hooker Syd Blackmore comes in to fill the gap left by Dan Frost, who has moved to Wasps, while Arwel Robson, Ed Scragg and Carwyn Penny have signed from Dragons, and Joe Elderkin (Exeter University) and Will Gibson (Cardiff Metropolitan) join following the completion of their university commitments.
Perhaps the key for Pirates this season is how the array of new half-backs that have been recruited for the upcoming campaign settle. With Will Cargill, Jean-Baptiste Bruzulier and Rhodri Davies all having moved on, the likes of Robson, Dawson, Kessell and Elderkin will have to gel quickly for the team to thrive.
Placing fifth last season, Rowland Winter has kept his squad largely the same for the upcoming campaign. Scrum-half Joe Snow has been recruited on a full-time basis from Exeter Chiefs, while Sam Aspland-Robinson will also be staying at Butts Park, again as a loan player from Leicester Tigers, and Tom Griffiths has signed on loan from Dragons.
Signed on a full-time basis is Joe Jones from Doncaster Knights, the former Wales U20 prop also having spent time with Sale Sharks, Cardiff Blues and Perpignan in his career.
Also coming to the West Midlands is Jon Kpoku, the 22-year-old joining from Saracens, whilst back-row forward Josh Bainbridge arrives from Jersey Reds.
With Winter now moving into his sixth year as Coventry’s director of rugby, there have been consistent improvements in the Cathedral City and much of the same should be expected this season.
Steve Boden and his side would have been disappointed to have not reached the play-off finals after a strong start last season, but they have recruited heavily from other Championship sides this summer.
Maliq Holden and Harry Davey make their way to South Yorkshire from Cornish Pirates, whilst Henry Paul and Joe Wrafter arrive from Bedford, Alex Dolly from Nottingham, George Oram from Richmond, Fraser Strachan from Ealing and Sam Hudson from Ampthill.
Both Guido Volpi (Ospreys) and Connor Edwards (Dragons) have been signed on a full-time basis, Spanish international Josh Peters has come from Dijon, Ronan McCusker from Major League Rugby’s New England Free Jacks, Joe Margetts from Ayrshire and Joe Green from Leeds Tykes.
Maybe the biggest challenge for Boden and his staff is establishing a strong leadership group amongst the players, with club mainstays Robin Hislop, Matt Challinor, Ben Hunter and Charlie Foley all leaving Castle Park.
Having finished first overall in the table last season before losing to Saracens in the two-legged play-off final, this season may well be the club’s best chance to make it to the Premiership.
Reuben Bird-Tulloch (Northampton Saints), Dylan Smith (Stade Francais), Cian Kelleher (Leinster), Stephen Kerins (Connacht) and Tadgh McElroy (Bristol Bears) are amongst those recruited by Ben Ward.
Bill Johnston joins the club on a full-time basis after being loaned to the London-based club from Ulster in 2021.
With the likes of Craig Hampson, Craig Willis, Will Davis, Simon Uzokwe, Bobby de Wee and Rayn Smid all remaining at Vallis Way, it certainly seems like now or never for Ealing in their hunt for promotion.
Winning two games last season, Hartpury will be hoping to build on a number of promising performances in the first half of 2021. James Williams was a leading light for the side at both fly-half and inside-centre, and will have plenty of new team-mates supporting him at the Alpas Arena.
Oli Robinson, Jack Tovey (both Ealing Trailfinders), Charlie Foley (Doncaster Knights) and Jean-Baptiste Bruzulier (Cornish Pirates) all come to the West Country with experiences in the second tier of English rugby.
Conor Maguire (Gloucester), Tommy Matthews and Xavier Hastings (Bath) arrive from the top flight, Harry Short is promoted from the club’s academy and seven players have arrived on season-long loans from nearby Gloucester.
There is certainly depth amongst this group, which will make finding the best match-day 23 all the harder. But should the correct formula be found by director of rugby John Barnes, then Hartpury may well cause some upsets.
No doubt disappointed by Jersey’s sixth-place finish in the Championship last season, Harvey Biljon has recruited smartly to improve upon his team’s previous efforts.
Scott van Breda, who spent the last season on the Channel Islands on loan from Worcester, joins the club for a second time on a permanent basis, as does Guy Thompson, who last represented the club in 2013.
Ryan Olowofela joins from Northampton Saints, while Harry Simmons comes to the Stade Santander on loan from Leicester Tigers. James Flynn, Alex Humfrey and Will Brown all most recently represented Ampthill, James Mitchell comes in from Doncaster Knights, Will Lane from Loughborough Students and Huw Owen from Pontypridd.
A side that prides itself on a fine balance between a dominant forward pack along with supreme attacking flair, last year feels as though it may have been a blip with better things to come this season.
Opting out of the 2020-21 season, Matt Williams’s first year as director of rugby has certainly been a long time in the making.
Having joined from National One’s Chinnor in April 2020, Williams brought Ricky Khan along from Oxfordshire, too, along with the vast experience of former Cornish Pirates and Ealing Trailfinders fly-half Laurence May.
He has also recruited the likes of Tom Petty, Maurice Nwakor, Morgan Dawes and Tom Baldwin from National League clubs, as well as a litter of talent from BUCS Super Rugby and experienced Championship faces, such as the returning James Tyas. It is very much horizons new at the club.
It is so difficult to even guess what kind of a challenge this London Scottish team will pose when they make their long-awaited return to competitive action. With it likely to take a few weeks to get up to speed, a poor start to the season may be their undoing by the season’s end.
Perhaps the biggest change at Nottingham this season is the man at the helm. With Neil Fowkes having taken up a full-time coaching role with Wasps, the team’s former captain Craig Hammond has returned from Hong Kong nine years after he left the East Midlanders for Asia.
There are plenty of new faces at Lady Bay, but perhaps one of the biggest developments is the club’s performance partnership with Leicester Tigers. This will see the two clubs share coaching resources, along with training and playing opportunities.
Much like similar agreements between Bedford and Northampton Saints, as well as Hartpury and Gloucester, six of Leicester’s academy players (Joe Browning, Lewis Chessum, Jacob Cusick, Sam Edwards, Tim Hoyt and Archie Vanes) are joining Nottingham with the aim of aiding their development, as well as hoping to advance the club up the table.
On the whole, there is a lot to like about this Nottingham team. Despite having moved to a part-time environment, the experiences of Josh McNulty, Carl Kirwan, Josh Poullet and David Williams in Premiership environments should help the group adjust to life under Hammond effectively.
Finishing bottom of the Championship table in 2020-21, Richmond’s director of rugby Steve Hill will be looking for more than one victory this season.
With a number of senior players – Rob Kirby, Alex Bibic and Tom Pashley – retiring and George Oram moving to Doncaster Knights, the West Londoners announced the majority of their new arrivals in mid-August, as well as the appointment of Rob Powell as head coach.
Amongst those making their way to the Athletic Ground are Will Homer (Scarlets), Owain James (Wasps), Ethan Benson (Saracens), Miles Wakeling, Mark Bright and Craig Duncan (all London Scottish), Will Carrick-Smith and James Lennon (both Bedford Blues), and Jack Rouse (Ealing Trailfinders).
Richmond will no doubt be competitive and the fact that they have had game time in recent months means they should not find themselves at the bottom of the table again.
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