Breaking the status quo
July 24, 2012
Richard Haughton will be in Jersey colours next season © Getty Images
The promotion of London Welsh to the Aviva Premiership and the relegation of Newcastle Falcons has wafted a wind of change across the conservative landscape of English rugby. Newcastle are the first former title-winning club to be demoted since leagues began in 1987, and the forthcoming season will be Welsh's first in the top flight, for all their rich history and prominence in the pre-league days of the 1960s and 70s.
There is a whiff of the exotic in the second-tier Championship, too, with Jersey joining Newcastle as the newcomers for the 2012-13 season after winning National League One to earn a fifth promotion in eight years. Okay, 'exotic' may be stretching things a little to describe the club on the Channel island 30 kilometres off the northern coast of France. But if the idea of hopping on a plane or (if you have the time) a ferry to watch an English league match appeals to the wanderlust in you, Jersey is your club. That is not all that is different about them, either.
Excitement is high on the island at their latest step up. Jersey's Rue des Landes ground in St Peter accommodated an average attendance of 2100 last season and they are hoping to nudge 3000 this time, with 4000 able to squeeze in with some well-aimed shoe-horning. A new terrace at one end, a switch in the dugouts and some work in front of the stand have been minor spruce-ups to the infrastructure since promotion. The greater priority has been the playing squad, now two thirds full-time compared to one third a year ago. Former Saracens and Wasps wing Richard Haughton is the headline signing among a dozen players (see below) added to the first-team squad by the straight-talking director of rugby Ben Harvey, who joined in 2008. Former Wales prop Ben Evans will continue in his dual role of assistant coach and experienced tighthead, and a new strength and conditioning coach Jake Aliker has arrived from Harlequins.
Of course what we all want to know is can Jersey follow London Welsh and scale the final rung of the ladder to the Premiership? To "do an Exeter" as it were - breaking into the cosy group of Leicester, Gloucester, Wasps, Harlequins and the other Premiership mainstays, and tapping the potential of a different rugby area, geographically and philosophically?
Frankly, the chances of immediate success are slim and most message-board pundits predict Jersey will be vying with Moseley and Plymouth Albion to avoid 12th and bottom place in the Championship this season. Jersey would surely be content with finding their feet in mid-table. They will certainly have a better idea of the challenge after the first month of fixtures. Opening at home to Cornish Pirates and away to Leeds Carnegie, they will also face Rotherham away and Bedford at home. Evans, who is ebullient about the mix of local talent and recruits, told me: "I hate clichés but it is definitely a case of walking before you can run. Let's be competitive in the Championship and see how we go."
The island has a population of just under 100,000, in which context crowds of 3000 represent a proportionally outstanding level of interest but not a vast encouragement to go mad and build a bigger stadium, even if a suitable site could be found on this 118 kilometres-square rock of pricy real estate better known for its tax-break allure to wealthy types like the comedian Jimmy Carr. With a small grandstand on one touchline and a big clubhouse on the other, the rugby ground is hemmed in by roads and the airport. Any new venture would have to overcome considerable hurdles of funding, planning permission and sustainability.
There appear, though, to be reassuringly solid foundations to this team surrounded by sea. Local schools play rugby, and the Wexford-born club chairman Bill Dempsey quotes a figure of 160 sponsors, from simple perimeter-board buyers to Ashburton Investment who have got behind the eye-catching pre-season friendly with Leicester Tigers in August. The nine times English champions are taking their whole squad over for a few days, with an estimated 400 supporters in tow. The United Kingdom's sunniest spot is an attractive destination. Throw in the fervour for rugby and it feels like a compact version of a Biarritz or a Toulouse as a new destination on the fixture list.
This season's main sponsors reflect that, with the Jersey States putting up £75,000 to promote both the island's tourism and the 'Locate Jersey' message at individuals and companies.
Doubtless the gainsayers and grumblers will point out that Jersey will be adding to the number of clubs in the Championship who do not appear to want to be promoted to the Premiership, calling into question again what leagues stand for and how the system should work. On the other hand, perhaps there is some unexpected gold to be mined here: a new front to be opened for English rugby in the Channel islands (Guernsey have just been promoted too, at level six of the league structure) and Hampshire.
Most of the Premiership bigwigs appear content to do everything more or less the same, year after year - creating a solid base to thrive and expand, they would doubtless argue. Those who are not quite so enamoured of the status quo will find joy in Jersey's new found status.
Dave Markham is another one of Jersey's new recruits © Getty Images
Jersey signings, summer 2012:
© ESPN EMEA Ltd
"If there was a cross breed of canine called an Underdogdoodle it would win best in show at Crufts." Mark Durden-Smith looks at the Aviva Premiership Final
With the Lions' tour to Australia fast-approaching, ESPN's Austin Healey and Mark Durden-Smith sat down to share their memories of the 2001 trip Down Under
Ask John answers questions on the Leopards' tour to Italy in 1974, brotherly Test sides, Pat McGrath, England's games against the Barbarians and Jacques Brunel
"We were only five metres away in the last Test of getting that try and with Jonny's inevitable conversion, we'd have won it." Tom Hamilton talks to Lions fullback Matt Perry