Joe Harvey gives his verdict on all the clubs in England’s second tier
RFU Championship team guide 2022-23
All of a sudden, the RFU Championship season is back upon us, with 12 teams all set to do battle over the next ten months.
Ealing Trailfinders will be hoping to be table-toppers once more, Doncaster Knights can look to push the London-based side to the very end, while there are significant changes behind the scenes for London Scottish and there is a new side in the competition in the form of Caldy.
Both Ealing and Doncaster were unable to fulfil minimum standards criteria to gain promotion to the Gallagher Premiership last season, so they – and the other clubs interested in going up – will be working to ensure they pass the requirements to move into the top flight this season should they finish top of the table.
With plenty of changes at all 12 clubs over the off-season, here is our RFU Championship team guide for the 2022-23 campaign, with thoughts as to how the table could look by season’s end.
RFU Championship team guide 2022-23
Since their promotion from National One in 2019, Ampthill have quickly grown into being a force in the Championship. Long-serving director of rugby Mark Lavery and head coach Paul Turner remain at the helm, with Mouritz Botha and Vili Ma’asi still in the back-room staff. They are joined by World Cup winner Vincent Koch and former England international Joe Worsley, who will advise the side.
They have had several key departures to deal with, Jamie Jack having joined Edinburgh, Jac Arthur to local rivals Bedford and Russell Bennett to Jersey Reds, but the side has retained many of their stars, including club captain Charlie Beckett, for at least another season in Bedfordshire.
In mid-August, the side announced a series of signings, including former Doncaster Knights prop Joe Sproston, former Western Force man Dom Hardman, as well as a duo of hookers in the form of Matt Gallagher (36 tries for Sedgley Park Tigers in National Two North last season) and the returning Syd Blackmore.
With such an influx of high-quality players alongside an experienced and settled squad at Dillingham Park, their year-to-year improvements can only be expected to continue this time out.
Moving into his 18th season as the head coach of Bedford Blues, Mike Rayer is an astute operator at this level. Last year the side placed fifth and as a result of their efforts Rich Lane has earned a contract with the Bristol Bears after a successful loan spell and Matt Worley won his first caps for Hong Kong over the summer.
Along with Lane, Bedford have also seen Will Biggs, Bailey Ransom and Ollie Stedman move on to pastures new, leaving big gaps and bags of experience to fill.
Michael Le Bourgeois’s return to Goldington Road is one huge boost for the side, the centre returning after four years with Wasps and he will combine with Jamie Elliott in midfield.
They have also recruited Sean French from Munster and Charles Ryland and Monty Royston from the BUCS Super Rugby competition, but it’s difficult to see the team make a huge leap up the table.
Last April, when Caldy beat Sale FC to confirm their promotion to the second division, it became the focus of the national media. Sam Quek was one of a number of celebrities present as the club’s rise through the ranks saw them reach the Championship.
Having welcomed a former Premiership champion in Sam Dickinson back to the club the summer prior, it is the group’s tight-knit nature that was the key to their success last season. Director of rugby Gareth Davies, head coach Matt Cairns and a whole host of players have called Paton Field home for numerous years.
In a pre-season interview, Davies said “it was never the plan to overhaul the squad”, which is seen in the club’s announcements to date, with England Sevens legend Dan Bibby one of the few new players added to the side.
However, as much as there is to adore about Caldy and their values, you have to think that having a squad without all that much Championship experience – no matter how attuned they are to one another – this season will be an uphill battle from start to finish.
It was all the way back in March that Cornish Pirates benefactor Dicky Evans announced a three-year ‘sunset plan’ that will complete his investment in the club. During his time funding the club, Evans has seen Pirates move from the seventh division to being a professional outfit.
With a final £2.5m to be given to the side over the next three years, what happens after that time is uncertain. Still, having Alan Paver and Gavin Cattle as co-head coaches means there will be continuity in the coaching staff following high turnover in the playing group. This has seen experienced campaigners Nicolas de Battista and Tom Duncan retire while Josh Caulfield and Ed Scragg have moved to Premiership side London Irish.
Coming through the door in Penzance are Seb Nagle-Taylor and Will Britton from Gloucester, several players from National Two South’s Redruth, as well as a series of players who have been dual-registered from Premiership and United Rugby Championship sides.
Likely to still be competing in the upper echelons of the table, you can only expect to see the Cornishmen vying for a place at the top of the league.
Last season’s eighth-place finish for Coventry can only be described as something of a disaster. Having had an experienced, professional squad, finishing in the bottom half of the Championship table leaves the club’s new head coach, Alex Rae, with plenty of work to do.
Experienced campaigners Phil Boulton, Ryan Burrows and Tony Fenner have all retired, meaning that they were busy on the recruitment front.
Bringing in Shea Cornish and Danny Southworth on season-long loans from Exeter Chiefs, as well the likes of Will Talbot-Davies from Dragons, Jordan Poole in full-time from Exeter, as well as Will Biggs, Harry Seward and Will Lane from other Championship clubs, much of the side’s future comes down to how they gel under new leadership.
Rae joined the club in 2021 as their forwards coach before taking on the head coaching role on an interim basis and leading the side to the Championship Cup final last May. Clearly he made an impact and, with a full pre-season under their belt, a return to the top five seems more than achievable.
Last season, Steve Boden’s Knights actually won more games than table-toppers Ealing Trailfinders, the virtue of gaining more bonus points handing the Londoners victory. With such positivity coming from their last outing, there should be excitement for the year ahead in South Yorkshire.
Gareth Denman has retired, while Josh Peters, Sam Graham, Mark Best and Guido Volpi have all moved on, meaning there have been gaps to fill on the roster. To do so, Boden has recruited Karl Garside from Northampton Saints, while Mak Wilson arrives from Harlequins.
In addition to those recruited from Premiership clubs, Jared Cardew, George Simpson, Robbie Smith and Ehize Ehizode all come with extensive Championship experience, their additions only strengthening the Yorkshiremen.
So once more Castle Park will be the place to be to watch the Championship’s top sides and we expect Doncaster and Ealing to be the two competing for silverware.
Last term Ealing felt aggrieved to not have been granted access to the Premiership after winning the Championship. Ben Ward’s side will be going out to prove that they can’t be ignored for much longer – and working off the field to ensure they meet the criteria to secure promotion.
The West London side have brought in a number of highly-rated young players from Premiership academies. This has seen the likes of Rob Farrar, Will Montgomery and Josh Gillespie move to the capital along with Ollie Fox, Dan Lancaster and Jack Metcalf.
Wales international Jonah Holmes will also now turn out in green and white after his time with the Dragons has come to a close, while Australians Jack Grant and Carlo Tizzano and former Cornish Pirates lock Danny Cutmore also come to strengthen the group.
All of the aforementioned new players can only add to an already top-rate squad at Ward’s disposal. Bobby de Wee, Simon Uzokwe, Max Bodilly, Craig Hampson and plenty more were in red-hot form, and will be looking to stake the club’s claim to become the Premiership’s newest side.
Placing seventh last time out, Hartpury enjoyed a relatively successful 2021-22 campaign, winning seven games, drawing one and losing 12. Their standout player, James Williams, had his efforts across the season recognised by Pat Lam at Bristol, the West Country outfit also recruiting Oscar Lennon as well as Spanish duo Jono and Toti Benz-Salomon.
Of course, things at Hartpury are a little different to most. As much as there is a fairly lengthy list of players who have left the ALPAS Arena in recent months, there will be players from Gloucester Rugby and the university that will also be involved with Mark Cornwell’s side.
Perhaps the team’s biggest obstacle is that many of the teams that compete around them have improved so vastly by recruiting players with extensive senior rugby experience.
With that said, the club’s priority isn’t to recruit those types of players, although they have brought in Sam Rodman from Cornish Pirates, Jack Davies from Doncaster Knights and Harry Fry from Dragons to play alongside a squad that has talent from top to bottom.
As ever, Jersey Reds have recruited strongly after plenty left the Channel Islands in recent weeks. Harvey Biljon has had to fill the gaps left by James Flynn, Sam Leeming and Will Lane’s departures.
To contend with these losses, Russell Bennett has been brought in from Ampthill, Hamish Bain from Glasgow Warriors, James Scott from Worcester Warriors, Sam Grahamslaw from Edinburgh, as well as scrum-half duo Jonny Law and Toby Venner.
This is always the case at the Stade Santander, plenty of players are often coming and going, with Biljon’s trick being getting them all to bond in quick fashion.
Finishing fourth last season, the club was just 11 points adrift of table toppers Ealing and as one of the league’s remaining few professional outfits they are likely to see themselves competing at the top again.
After finishing at the foot of the Championship last time out, there has been plenty of change for London Scottish this off-season. First came the announcement that the side had formed a partnership with Premiership titans Harlequins, the installation of Bryan Redpath as director of rugby and Joe Gray as head coach duly following.
So far this summer there have been more incomings than outgoings, with Redpath bringing in two of his countrymen to the English capital, with Nathan Chamberlain joining from Edinburgh and Robbie McCallum from Glasgow Warriors.
In addition to the Scotsmen, Luca Petrozzi has joined from Benetton, as Theo Manihera, Bailey Ransom and Matt Wilkinson join from fellow Championship clubs Nottingham and Ampthill. You then add to this the numerous academy players that could be dual-registered from Harlequins as a result of their partnership, and there is a considerably brighter outlook for The Exiles.
With such positivity after a torrid season adapting to being a semi-professional outfit, you are only left to think that the side will experience much better results in the new season.
Craig Hammond’s first season at the helm at Lady Bay ended with a tenth-place finish. Winning five games of the 20 they played, the club will no doubt be looking to build on their efforts this season.
Another year into the project, the club have seen Josh McNulty, Jake Farnworth and Theo Manihera depart, while Jordan Olowofela has been recruited from Leicester Tigers, Jack Dickinson from Ampthill, Xavier Valentine from Leeds, Ross Bundy from Rennes and Iosefa Maloney-Fiola from Bay of Plenty.
Hammond has also leaned on his relationships in Hong Kong, where he coached for a decade, to recruit Michael Green, Jack Neville and Liam Slatem from the country.
With a playing philosophy now installed by Hammond and his staff, as well as the players to best execute that style of play, there will be a better record come the seasons close, but perhaps no significant change in positioning.
A ninth-place finish for Richmond last season would have in some ways been a disappointment. Competing at the head of the table for a period, those involved would have no doubt been pleased with their efforts on their return to the competition after time in National One and Covid-19 intervened.
Due to be captained by Mark Bright as the back-row approaches his 44th year, the club has seen an influx of players into the side with a variety of experience.
Bringing in Bill Johnston, Harry Hunter and Stephen Kerins from Ealing, as well as Tom Mills from Saracens, Tom Caesar from Ulster, Alex O’Meara from Cornish Pirates and Conor Maguire from Hartpury, and a host of players who have mainly been involved in university rugby, it is a diverse mix.
Losing the vast experience of Luc Jones (Rosslyn Park), James Hadfield (Jersey Reds) and Jared Cardew (Doncaster Knights) will be tough to make up, but Richmond often spring surprises.
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