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The haves and have-nots
Tom Hamilton
August 10, 2011
The Championships' captains at the launch of the new season, Twickenham, England, August 9, 2011
The 12 captains of the Championship sides at the launch of the tournament on Tuesday © Getty Images
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Players/Officials: Rob Andrew

The Rugby Football Union insists the Championship is in the rudest of health despite the fact that English club rugby's second tier competition is set to enter yet another campaign without a title sponsor.

Tries are up to an average of five a match and with the television cameras pulling in 100,000 worth of viewers the Championship appears to be going from strength to strength - an assertion that is backed up by Rob Andrew, the RFU's director of operations. However, with finances tight and with a limited number of teams actually able to challenge for a place in the Aviva Premiership - is everything as rosy as we are led to believe?

Andrew admits the lack of a title sponsor it is a concern but believes the current economic instability is not aiding the task. "It is difficult and it's an issue we're looking at," Andrew said. "We continue to work hard with the Championship to find a sponsor for the league and the British and Irish Cup. Yet we have to recognise the marketplace we are in.

"We all hope it's only a question of time and we're working towards that moment. There are lots of good things in the pipeline. I think in the end the product will sell and we need to keep on working hard to make it better."

During the official launch of the 2011-12 Championship season - one recurring theme was the number of players who have plied their trade in England's second-tier now turning out week-in-week-out in the Premiership - a fact further highlighted by former Bedford lock Mouritz Botha's debut for England on Saturday.

And Andrew believes the latest funding agreement - which states that clubs will only receive RFU support if they fulfil the quota of 14 English qualified players in a matchday squad - will mean more Championship experienced players appearing in a red rose jersey in the near future.

"We want the Championship to start bringing in English players rather than looking overseas," Andrew argued. "We don't mind quality foreign players playing in the league but we don't want workmanlike foreign playing and therefore stopping the development of some high quality young players.

"They need to play. That's why the likes of Ben Youngs and Courtney Lawes are developing as fast as they are at such a young age- it's due to match time."

Following last season's epic Championship semi-final between Worcester and Bedford - where the Warriors only secured victory in the dying embers of the match - there was the potential outcome on the cards of Bedford playing against the Cornish Pirates in the final of the competition. If this had occurred then Leeds Carnegie would be lining up in the Aviva Premiership this season - saved by both Bedford and the Pirates failure or inability to meet Premiership stadium standards.

Despite the 'have-nots' effectively being pigeon holed in the second tier as a result of the RFU stance on the subject, Andrew believes that development is not something which can happen overnight and that the clubs know the situation if their eyes are on promotion.

"I think there's some confusion over the previous decision to move to the Championship, It was never going to be a professional league overnight," Andrew said. "It took the Premiership ten years to get into a solid position after its inception.

"You have to take these things one-step at a time. Exeter planned their campaign on and off the field over a period of time - similar to Worcester. You have to try and keep the standards high.

"I also think maybe not everyone wants to be a Premiership club - for some it suits being in the Championship. Everybody knows the rules at the start of the season. If you haven't got the facilities then you will not be registered. That's the way it is. The alternative is to pull the door to and no one wants to do that. These things do not happen overnight."

Regardless of the differing opinion on the Championship - one thing is for certain - across the board more youngsters are experiencing competitive rugby than before. Finances and ground regulations aside this fact is certainly promising for the future of English rugby - a notion which Andrew is keen to highlight.

"The most important thing is that our young players - if they aren't ready for the Premiership - are getting 80 minutes of rugby every weekend.

"Conor O'Shea and I looked at the situation in November 2006 and we discovered 30% of academy athletes hadn't played a single minute of competitive rugby three months into the season."

Such a statistic would have been a huge worry for those in the RFU's offices. However, it is clear that this situation has changed since. One only has to look at the recent England U20 side who played in the 2011 Junior World Championship to see the level of influence the Championship has on the side. Bristol's Mako Vunipola shone and has since moved up to Saracens for the forthcoming season.

As long as players such as Vunipola have the chance to play 80 minutes of rugby every week then despite financial concerns the Championship is an essential aspect of Andrew's constant creed of "succession planning."

The Championship is now just a month away. With Andrew suggesting it would take a brave man to hedge their bets on who will prevail come May, the league's 'have-nots' will be doing all they can to gatecrash the Premiership top-table.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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