The Greene King IPA Championship – English rugby's second tier – kicks off this weekend after the longest pre-season ever. RW looks at how each club is shaping up
Championship team-by-team guide
This season’s Greene King IPA Championship finally kicks off this weekend – but it will be more of a sprint than a marathon. Teams will play each other home or away over 11 rounds, with one side each week having a bye. There will also be three reserve weekends (3-4 April, 8-9 May and 5-6 June).
That will result in ten league matches per team and the top two in the table will meet in a two-leg play-off final on 12 and 19 June. The winner of that will be promoted to the Premiership providing they satisfy the Minimum Standards Criteria. There will be no relegation to National One this season.
Related content: RFU scraps relegation for this season
Only 11 teams will compete in this season’s Championship because London Scottish decided they could not afford to participate. The clubs are required to invest in Covid testing that is funded only by ten-year government loans, not grants as had been hoped for.
To offset the clubs’ loss of income during crowd-free times, games will be live-streamed. Revenues will be pooled and distributed for the benefit of all.
Saracens and Ealing Trailfinders are the hot favourites to reach the play-off final, but the shorter format offers greater hope to the other challengers. Here’s how each club is shaping up ahead of kick-off…
Last season: 5th
The Bedfordshire club were strangely secretive about declaring new signings when RW contacted them back in December. They have plenty of new faces, among them locks Charlie Beckett (ex-Gloucester) and Lewelyn Jones (Nottingham), loosehead prop Alex Pleasants (Wasps, on loan) and centre Joe Roberts (Scarlets, on loan).
Eight debutants featured in Ampthill’s 36-21 warm-up win at Bedford last weekend. Player-coach Dave Ward, the former Harlequins hooker, and Aleki Lutui, the former Tonga hooker playing tighthead, scored the first two of their five tries. Flanker Sam Hudson is captain.
An admirable fifth last season, their first at this level, they have lost highly-rated wing Kwaku Asiedu to London Scottish and two Tongan international forwards: Soane Tonga’uiha has joined Chinnor as a player-coach and Maama Molitika has retired at the age of 45, his career including 160 appearances for Ampthill over seven seasons.
Last season: 8th
The Blues signed a strategic partnership with Northampton last summer and the fruits of that were evident when a dozen Saints players rocked up to training at the start of February. Most are dual-registered and will only return to the Premiership club if called on for first-team fixtures, not for A League games as previously.
The likes of hooker James Fish and second-row Lewis Bean, Glasgow-bound next season, started last week’s defeat by Ampthill and the bench included 18-year-old Ethan Grayson, son of former England stand-off Paul.
Recent signings include giant Kiwi-born centre Elijah Niko (Ealing Trailfinders), who has played in France’s Top 14 and for Australia Sevens. Andre Robson (Yorkshire Academy) is another centre arrival while Irish prop Corrie Barrett joins from Munster as a replacement for the newly retired Alex Penny.
Tommy Bell, the well-travelled fly-half who last year played for Asia Pacific Dragons in the World Tens Series, was recruited as a replacement for USA international Will Hooley, now at Saracens. But he has since signed as a medical joker for Stade Montois in France. Will Maisey played at ten last week, when Bedford’s scrum was a strong point.
Other Blues departures are wing Dean Adamson (Rouen) and Ryan Hutler (Jersey), the top try-scorer last season, and second-row Ed Taylor (Blackheath), a rallying leader.
Last season: 3rd
There’s little change in the Pirates squad that finished third last season. Back-five forward Josh Caulfield, signed from Exeter and loaned to Wasps last autumn, is the most notable addition. There are two new fly-halves in loanee Luke Scully (Cardiff Blues) and Harry Bazalgette (Exeter University), Scully being named Man of the Match in a recent 26-13 friendly win against Jersey Reds.
The squad is supplemented by five dual-registered Exeter Chiefs players, while back-row James McRae had joined from the Chiefs before deciding to take a teaching job instead at Eton College. Lock Brett Beukeboom, a former Canada captain, retired last March and fellow Canuck Matt Evans hung up his boots to become Pirates’ team manager.
The Cornish side are under joint head coaches Alan Paver and Gavin Cattle following Chris Stirling’s return to New Zealand on sabbatical. They have chosen Argentinian centre Nico De Battista, 30, as captain. “During these tough times, he has shown himself to be unwavering throughout,” says Cattle.
Last season: 4th
The Midlanders have had to cut their cloth squad-wise but have steadied the ship financially, including a £36,000 boost from a crowdfunding campaign. High-calibre players like Luke Wallace (Leicester), Rory Jennings (Clermont) and David Halaifonua (London Scottish) have moved on as Coventry put faith in a younger squad. When Coventry put a shoutout for U18s trials, around 100 players responded, almost all of whom had been with Premiership clubs.
Notable additions include try-scoring hooker Nic Dolly from Sale Sharks and wing Tom Emery from England Sevens. Emery will be absent because he’s in the GB Sevens training squad for the Tokyo Olympics that were meant to have happened last summer. He will become Coventry’s first Olympian should he make the final squad.
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To compensate, Cov have signed Wasps’ Callum Sirker, a tremendous talent just back from a horrific knee injury. And look out for full-back Louis Brown, who has been in flying form.
Other arrivals include hooker Suva Ma’asi, the son of a Tongan international, scrum-half Josh Barton (London Scottish) and full-back Tom Hudson, dual-registered from Gloucester.
Coventry warmed up for the campaign with two fixtures against title favourites Saracens, losing 48-33 away and 47-12 at Barkers Butts Arena.
Last season: 10th
The average playing age has dropped from 32 to 24 at Doncaster, where head coach Steve Boden is not only contemplating his first season in charge but the delights of fatherhood after the birth of a daughter. Joe Ford and Nathan Smith are his assistants.
There’s a raft of signings, one of the latest being lock Jerry Sexton, an ex-Jersey captain signed from Southern Kings who is the brother of Ireland captain Johnny. Scrum-half James Mitchell (Northampton), wing Jack Spittle (Nottingham), prop Gareth Denman (Coventry), wing Aaron Reed (Sale, loan) and back-row Guido Volpi (Ospreys, loan) are others on board.
Elder statesmen Colin Quigley, Michael Hills and Tyson Lewis, the club’s top try-scorer in the pro era, are among the departees. Pete Lucock is arguably the biggest loss, the centre having joined Newcastle.
Doncaster prepared for this week’s kick-off by playing Saracens and Ealing (twice) in the Trailfinders Challenge Cup. They lost all three games convincingly but it helped get some rust out of the system.
Last season: 2nd
Ealing are celebrating their 150th season. Anniversary plans have been shattered by the pandemic but that will all be forgotten if they can go one better than the runners-up spot they attained in 2019-20.
An impressive cast list features new signings such as Guy Thompson (Leicester), Charlie Walker (Zebre), Max Bodilly (Exeter) and Levi Davis (Bath). Bobby de Wee, a South African lock who nearly had his leg amputated at 14 because of a bacterial infection, is another welcome arrival. Matt Cornish and captain Sam Dickinson are the principal losses.
The Trailfinders have been busier than anyone in the division, playing nine friendlies and winning eight of them. And they have faced some serious outfits: Saracens, Newcastle, Bristol Bears A and Doncaster (twice each), along with Richmond at the end of February, when Trailfinders fielded ten academy players.
The wins over title rivals Saracens, by 27-26 and 39-26, were particularly satisfying, hooker Alun Walker’s two second-half tries proving critical in the first of those meetings. No one is kidding themselves – Saracens could wheel out a clutch of world-class players if needs be – but DoR Ben Ward says: “We are narrowing the gap.”
Last season: 11th
Vying with Richmond for the league’s lowest payroll, amateurs Hartpury are more resistant to the financial perils of Covid. They’ve finished near the bottom in their three previous Championship campaigns but think this is their strongest squad to date.
Key signings include tighthead Shaun Knight – replacing Coventry-bound Alex Gibson – and ten/12 James Williams, who returns after spells at Moseley and Sale. Hooker Nick Selway has joined on a short-term contract from London Scottish while lock Ehize Ehizode, recruited from Chinnor, stood out with some strong carries during a recent 10-7 loss to a Gloucester XV. Hartpury also have a batch of Gloucester Academy players available.
Ryan Lamb has replaced Jon Goodridge as backs coach and is registered to play. And Rhys Oakley, who captained the Hartpury side that won all 30 National One fixtures on its way to promotion to the Championship in 2017, is the defence coach. Oakley, a former Wales back-row, has fought back from testicular cancer.
Hartpury’s fingerprints are all over the pro game; five of England’s initial Six Nations squad – Harry Randall, Jonny Hill, Jonny May, Dan Robson and Ellis Genge – are Hartpury alumni. And another is Wales cap Louis Reez-Zammit. He’s not doing badly either, eh?
Last season: 7th
Jersey have a proud record as a ‘finishing school’, with Wales trio Will Rowlands, Callum Sheedy and Kieran Hardy the latest internationals to have honed their skills on the island.
Last year produced Reds’ first lower-half finish in several years but the arrival of the likes of Macauley Cook (Cardiff Blues), Namibia cap Lesley Klim (Ospreys) and Sean O’Connor (Munster) provide grounds for optimism. O’Connor captained the Reds in friendly defeats to Coventry (34-33) and Pirates (26-13) when DoR Harvey Biljon named the same starting XVs.
Other more recent signings are back-row Tim Grey, Fiji-born No 9 Cameron Nordli-Kelemeti and fly-half Bader Pretorius, the latter from Southern Kings.
Off the field, Rob Webber, who made a brief playing return for Sale last year, finally rolls his sleeves up as forwards coach. And there are plaudits for assistant coach Ed Robinson, who is spending the Six Nations on secondment to England.
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Jersey have a bye this weekend and then play Saracens in the first of five successive away games; they switched the match against Richmond on 20 March to the opposition’s ground. The unusual start allows the Reds to participate in the league while they continue to work out travel arrangements for visiting clubs.
Last season: 6th
Reality bites at Nottingham, where budgetary constraints have forced the club to go part-time. They will be training two evenings a week during the season, with S&C fitted around players’ jobs. “It’s a short-term solution,” says CEO Steve Smith. “Then we need to review what we want as a model going forward.”
The squad has been assembled later than others. It includes four players on loan from Leicester, including 18-year-old Emeka Ilione, well known locally for his time with Nottingham Corsairs. Lock Luke Frost joins from London Scottish while eight players arrive on dual registration – Scarlets and Sale provide three apiece.
Flanker Josh Buggea, recruited from Bedford, has opted to join the police instead. Alex White (skills) joins a coaching group now shorn of Andi Kyriacou (defence and forwards). It’s set to be a tough campaign for the men of Notts.
Sat 6 March
Hartpury College v Richmond (1.15pm)
Cornish Pirates v Saracens (3pm)
Coventry v Bedford Blues (3pm)
Sun 7 March
Ampthill v Doncaster (1pm)
Nottingham v Ealing Trailfinders (1pm)
Bye: Jersey Reds
Last season: 1st (National One)
Richmond have trimmed the squad that bounced straight back up last season as National One champions – they were seven points clear of Rosslyn Park with five rounds remaining when things came to a halt because of Covid.
Coventry, London Scottish, Chinnor and Old Elthamians have each provided multiple recruits to Richmond, who gave game time to 33 players during their pre-season match with Ealing. Wing Alex Doble (Old Elthamians) bagged a couple of tries in that 33-24 defeat.
Prop Jonny Harris (London Scottish) and wings Chris Elder (Chinnor) are significant arrivals while wily veteran Jamie Gibbs has retired and will be much missed at scrum-half. George Trimmer (skills) and Nic Rouse (forwards) supplement the coaching team.
Director of Rugby Steve Hill announced his squad after “34 weeks of unpaid pre-season training” and Saturday’s match with Hartpury will be a year to the day since Richmond played a competitive match.
Last season: 12th (Premiership)
Demoted Saracens get to eat humble pie, their first-team talent spread far and wide – on loan or gone for good – as the three-time European champions adjust to what most people assume will be a single season in the second tier.
Academy graduates like Manu Vunipola and Joel Kpoku will take up the slack, and among several new faces are a number with Championship experience, such as Alex Carey and Jaco Venter (Jersey), Harry Sloan (Ealing) and Will Hooley (Bedford).
A glance at the try-scorers in their final pre-season match tells you plenty about the task facing their league rivals: Alex Lewington (three), Juan Pablo Socino, Tim Swinson, Vincent Koch and Tom Whiteley all crossed at Coventry, while Manu Vunipola kicked 12 points.
With Alex Sanderson having joined Sale, skills coach Joe Shaw is the new head coach and Adam Powell moves up from the academy to run defence. Kelly Brown, the former Scotland back-row, has also returned as an assistant coach.
Related content: Alex Sanderson calls time on Saracens
Sarries’ six England RWC 2019 final starters have penned new deals. It remains to be seen how they will be used. However, when it comes to the crunch of the expected play-off final, the likes of Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje may well be making an appearance.
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