(Photo: Lissy Tomlinson/Rugby Matters)
FOR all the talk of chairman Steve Lansdown’s treasure chest and big-name signings like All Blacks Charles Piutau and John Afoa, a large chunk of Bristol’s recruitment has come from the Championship. And they are not alone.
More so than any other year, Championship players are in popular demand with an entire matchday 23 plus travelling reserve stepping up a level this summer, to either the Premiership or the PRO14.
Bristol lead the way with eight new recruits from English rugby’s second tier and head coach Pat Lam says he has unearthed a few gems at bargain prices.
“You normally find the hungriest players are the ones at the bottom of the chain who want to come up,” said Lam, who once played for Newcastle at that level at the dawn of professionalism. “For them it is just about getting an opportunity and I am excited about what the Championship players will bring.”
Jersey’s two Jakes, Woolmore and Armstrong, are set to arrive at Ashton Gate after proving cheaper alternatives to another prop who made a name for himself in the Channel Islands, England international Harry Williams, while Reds winger Tom Pincus has also become a Bear.
Ealing, runners-up to Bristol this season, also provide three players in prop Lewis Thiede and backs Luke Daniels and Piers O’Conor, while Tom Lindsay arrives from Bedford at hooker and Tiff Eden will back up Ian Madigan – the only player to score more points in the Championship than him this season – at 10.
In the case of props, Woolmore, right, and Armstrong, Lam has two quality performers for significantly less than the price of one.
“I got offered Harry Williams by an agent and the price they were looking for gave me a bit of a shock. I ended up doing my own homework and signed quite a few players at that price,” he revealed.
“One of the big things in the Championship is the set piece, a lot of the game is based around that, so you find a lot of good tight forwards in the Championship. It is the next step down from the Premiership, I understand that, but there is a good quality of rugby in there.
“I found out Harry came from the Championship and I believe the players we have signed there have the potential to go to the top level like him, too, if they continue to grow and develop. They have a great attitude.”
Jake Armstrong (Prop: Jersey – Bristol)
Joe Atkinson (Back row: L Scottish – Wasps) TBC
Scott Le Breda (Full-back: Jersey – Worcester)
Nicolas de Battista (Centre: C Pirates – Zebre)
Tim Cardell (Back-three: Nottingham – Wasps) TBC
Luke Daniels (Back-three: Ealing – Bristol)
Alex Davies (Half-back: Y Carnegie – Bath) TBC
Will Davis (Prop: Ealing – Northampton)
Tiff Eden (Fly-half: Nottingham – Bristol)
Kieran Hardy (Scrum-half: Jersey – Scarlets)
Michael Heaney (Scrum-half: Doncaster – Worcester)
Michael Le Bourgeois (Centre: Bedford – Wasps)
Tom Lindsay (Hooker: Bedford – Bristol)
Isaac Miller (Hooker: L Scottish – Worcester)
Ben Morris (Back row: Nottingham – Wasps) TBC
Ross Neal (Centre: L Scottish – Wasps) TBC
Piers O’Conor (Centre: Ealing – Bristol)
Tom Pincus (Wing: Jersey – Bristol)
Harry Randall (Scrum-half: Hartpury/Gloucester – Bristol)
James Voss (Lock: Jersey – Leicester)
Lewis Thiede (Prop: Ealing – Bristol)
Rhodri Williams (Scrum-half: Bristol – Newport GD)
Jordan Williams (Full-back: Bristol – Newport GD)
Jake Woolmore (Prop: Jersey – Bristol)
Jersey have supplied a rich pipeline of Premiership-ready players in recent times and the Bristol-bound trio will be joined in the top flight next season by Reds team-mate Scott Le Breda, who has signed for Worcester. James Voss is already there having secured a late-season deal with Leicester, while No.9 Kieran Hardy will return to the Scarlets in the summer.
“We have put in a lot of hard work over the last few years and our track record of developing players is right up there at the moment,” said Jersey head coach Harvey Biljon.
“Selfishly we would like to keep continuity and keep the team together, but there’s no way we can stand in the guys’ way. We’ve got to help them achieve their goals of playing at the next level.
“We have shown in recent seasons how we have been able to develop players who subsequently move to the Premiership and believe this shows the value of Championship rugby.”
Lam is equally supportive of the Championship’s worth in developing talent. “I think it is a great league and a breeding ground for talent coming through, coaches as well as players,” he said. “It is where a lot of young guys learn their trade because they’re playing against older men and some real wily characters. The chance to rough it up down there is invaluable. I thoroughly support the Championship, I think it is a great League.”
A great League but one he is glad to see the back of no doubt.
Helped by an injection of young, dual-registered players and a host of coaches who like to see the game flow, Championship rugby is played at a faster tempo allowing for promising backs to catch the eye, too.
Of the current Championship clubs Jersey top the bill with six players stepping up, followed by Ealing (4), L Scottish and Nottingham (3 each), Bedford (2), Cornish Pirates, Doncaster, Hartpury and Yorkshire Carnegie (all one apiece).