CHRIS FOY: Nottingham and Cambridge create a buzz and show there is life outside top tier… not that the RFU seem to know
- Nottingham seeking to thrive at upper level of the country’s club game
- Farrell’s decision to suspend Test career has caused a lot of soul-searching
- England head coach Borthwick also facing a complex equation at scrum-half
On A freezing night, it was a fabulous game. Nottingham hung on to beat a spirited Cambridge side 22-19 at Lady Bay last Friday, to briefly claim second place in the Championship.
To the Archers, that meant they were near the peak of the English rugby pyramid, given that the top tier is locked up and will stay that way. A crowd of around 1,000 enjoyed a close encounter which highlighted how competitive the second division of English rugby can be. The DJ’s tunes created a buzzing atmosphere. Cheap tickets attracted plenty of young spectators, including many students. The coffee was good, the food was good and the rugby was good.
There is life below the Premiership and real value. Nottingham have a rich history of developing Test talent for England, from the likes of Brian Moore and Rob Andrew to — more recently — Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Will Stuart and Ollie Chessum. But they and their rivals are struggling with reduced funding and restructuring plans hatched by the RFU and PRL which don’t suit them.
Late last month, the Championship voted unanimously to oppose a franchise system. They want to be part of a meritocracy, with freedom of movement, up and down.
But there is no prospect of any club being promoted to the Premiership in the near future, due to the Minimum Standards Criteria and an obligation to buy shares, which do not fit with any sustainable commercial blueprint.
Nottingham have a rich history of developing Test talent for England including Ollie Chessum
Talks with the union are due to continue and the matter is now critical. Cornish Pirates have just abandoned hopes of playing at a new stadium in Truro due to uncertainty about the outlook for English rugby, after four leading clubs went bust in the last year.
So Nottingham are seeking to thrive at the upper level of the country’s club game, knowing that the Premiership stands apart; propped up by enhanced funding while the rest struggle on.
‘We are top of the pyramid,’ said their chairman, Alistair Bow. ‘Nottingham are the third-best club in English rugby. I can’t count the 10 in the Premiership — they are franchises. The Championship is the top. You can’t go any further. So we believe we are representing the rest of the game.
‘Our funding has been cut from £680,000 to £150,000 per club. It is not going back up. But this is not just about money. We support an all-game solution, and that is not just an agreement between the Premiership and the RFU. We need to have a say, because there are 1,400 clubs in English rugby and we are the top of that pyramid.
‘The Premiership do engage with us, but they’ve got their deal done. They’ve got their 10 teams and they’ve got their funding sorted, so they’re happy and they don’t need us. But we are the pathway for future players.’
There is no prospect for clubs like Ealing and Doncaster of being promoted in the near future
Bow describes the Premiership as ‘technically locked’. In theory, there could be a play-off to decide promotion and relegation between the top two divisions at the end of this season but, in reality, it won’t come to that. ‘We’ve got clubs in this league — Ealing or Doncaster — who are worthy of being promoted,’ he said.
‘But it should be a meritocracy. At the moment, it’s not a fair competition to go into and we’re not treated fairly with funding, so let’s concentrate on sorting the rest of the game out. Then hopefully, one day, the Premiership will say, “The door is open again”.’
Problems mount for Borthwick
Steve Borthwick has more than just one half-back position providing a lot of food for thought. Over the weekend, the England head coach will have started planning for the absence of Owen Farrell at No 10 – leaving a playmaker dilemma to address – but Borthwick is facing a complex equation at scrum-half too, for all the right reasons.
With Ben Youngs now focused solely on his Leicester career, the new hierarchy is becoming crowded. Alex Mitchell scored a fine try for Northampton and is the incumbent, after becoming first-choice during the World Cup, but there is plenty of competition.
Ben Spencer has been imperious for Bath alongside Finn Russell and scored his fifth try of the season in the thumping win over Exeter at The Rec. Harry Randall produced a stunning solo strike against Gloucester to prove he shouldn’t be forgotten, while Danny Care also touched down as he and Marcus Smith orchestrated Harlequins’ demolition of Sale on Friday night.
Not so long ago, England were struggling to find two Test-class scrum-halves, now they have several jostling for recognition.
England head coach Steve Borthwick is also facing a complex equation at scrum-half
Lawes could set trend
Courtney Lawes for the Lions again – don’t rule it out. Northampton’s veteran flanker, who retired from England duty at the end of the World Cup, says he would be open to another long-haul mission with Britain and Ireland’s finest, while suggesting it would take a ‘fluke’ for him to be picked again.
His modesty is at odds with his enduring class, as Lawes proved once more in the Saints’ win at Saracens on Saturday. He will be 36 when the Lions go to Australia in 2025 and could make an ideal tourist; experienced, calm, with the wisdom to act as a leader and mentor, and the freshness of someone not stuck on the Test treadmill during a busy club season.
Pushing for Lions selection while not representing their country could become a trend among players from the home nations – either ones in international exile abroad, or others who are reluctant to commit to regular, long stints in camp – away from home – but would embrace a high-profile, one-off assignment.
Euro scourge removed
The Champions Cup returns next weekend – no longer just European and no longer possessing the grandeur of old, at least in the early phase.
Some teams will earn big wins and plenty of air miles, depending on the motivation levels among the Gallic contingent in particular – and the requirement for some teams to slog down to South Africa.
English challengers are bound to face an up-hill task, despite the fact that some of the French superpowers will be more interested in furthering their Top 14 prospects.
Another revamp means there are four pools of six teams, with each side playing four round-robin games – against rivals not from their own league. That avoidance of ‘derby’ fixtures is a welcome development as they have been a stale scourge of the tournament for too long.
The first weekend will feature a repeat of the last two finals, as Leinster travel to take on holders La Rochelle, who have endured a difficult domestic campaign so far, but may be inspired by the return of cross-border matches.
Here’s hoping that results allow for a Welsh, Scottish and Italian flavour to the last 16 stage and beyond – when the whole thing really comes alive.
Owen Farrell is to step away from England duty to prioritise his family’s mental well-being
Farrell’s decision to suspend his Test career has caused a lot of soul-searching in rugby circles. It has shone a harsh light on the strain imposed on players in the higher reaches of the sport, with a sense that the burden is especially heavy on England captains. So maybe the post should be scrapped.
The modern mantra is all about ‘leadership groups’ so why not formalise that system? Let one senior player deal with the officials, let another deal with the media and let another be the face of the marketing and sponsorship side. Let one do the bulk of the team talks, but that responsibility can be shared. Assign duties based on individual strengths and characteristics, so it is not all foisted on one person who may relish some elements and acutely dislike others. Spread the load – officially.
Another good option being championed by Lawrence Dallaglio is to encourage England players to take sabbaticals, sign lucrative deals in France or Japan, take a year or two out of the high-stakes Test bubble and return to fight for a recall.
It would provide a release valve. Good idea.
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