By Brendan Gallagher
One of the rather unsung, and indeed slightly baffling, success stories in English rugby in recent times has been the emergence of the two Channel Island sides – Jersey and Guernsey – as forces to be reckoned with.
Jersey have led the charge and are now an extremely competitive Championship side while Guernsey have seemingly been drawn along in their slipstream and last season earned promotion to National Two South.
Two small islands off the Normandy coast cut off from the mainstream, they don’t seemingly have a huge amount going for them rugby wise. Small populations, limited catchment areas and support bases and a barrow load of travel and practical issues at whatever level they compete – yet both clubs are on a high.
With their strong identities and island spirit, they have both taken to league rugby like ducks to water.
We look at the less well-publicised Guernsey story elsewhere on these pages but even they would admit that their great rivals Jersey have been the trailblazers as they marched up through the leagues and, possibly to their surprise, found themselves a fully professional club from 2012 onwards when they finally made it into the Championship.
How did that happen?
Founded in 1879 there has always been rugby in Jersey but, for obvious logistical reasons, on a limited scale with the club relying on incoming touring sides to provide better quality opposition while trying to raise the funds to make their own short tours to the mainland.
The big push came between 2005 and 2012 when they took the quantum decision to commit fully to league rugby and to embrace the possibility of promotion rather than to be content with survival and the status quo. In those seven years they progressed from London South West Three all the way up to the Championship after clinching the National One title in 2012.
At that stage there was a mix of imported players such as former Wales prop Ben Evans and Wasps wing Dave Doherty and considerable local talent such as centre Michael Le Bourgeois, prop Myles Landick and wing Ed Dawson.
Such rapid progress came at a cost financially and in 2016 the Reds found themselves in difficulties having to cobble together a deal in which they briefly sold their ground and then paid rent to use it. Happily, earlier this year they were able to reverse that when a group of ten club supporters and benefactors came up with a ten- year loan to buy the ground back and again put Jersey in control of their own destiny.
But what next? With just a 4,000 capacity stadium, average crowds of 1,500 or so and a limited budget there is little chance – or at this point desire – to play Premiership rugby. How do you mark time without stagnating.
Their five-year plan, announced in January 2016, envisages a viable club competing in the top third of the Championship by 2020 and perhaps contending for play-off places and as part of that process it also set a target of two Jersey-born players starting in the first team every week. Despite a strong youth section not enough local talent of the required standard has emerged in recent years
That five-year plan, wisely, made no mention of Premiership Rugby or even thinking of building a stadium with the necessary 10,000 capacity and other Premiership criteria.
There is an assumption that because it’s Jersey – an island with more millionaires per capita than most – that somehow the club is minted, but that is a long way from the truth.
A number of local businesses and benefactors are generous and constant in their support up to a certain point – the emergency loan earlier this year demonstrates that – but there is no rugby-mad sugar daddy in the background splashing the cash or seriously wealthy business consortium. Those who get involved tend to look at the big picture and the extremely long odds of Premiership rugby and the huge financial commitment that would be required to even secure that.
They are not alone. From what I can make out only three Championship clubs in the short term and two others in the mid-term have unambiguous Premiership ambitions.
London Irish, Leeds Carnegie and Ealing Trailfinders are all in for promotion whenever they can win the Championship while Cornish Pirates must wait for the construction of Stadium Cornwall and Coventry want to find their Championship feet again before rebooting and plotting a return to the top flight.
Jersey are in an interesting place, however. Their performances on the pitch – fifth in the Championship last season just three points behind third placed Bedford Blues – seem to be running way ahead of the club’s potential and desire to expand.
Last season they boasted the second tightest defence in the Championship and their 38-34 win at Bristol was one of those ‘wow’ moments which surely made those at the helm stop and consider exactly in which direction the ship is heading.
With a full-time professional squad of 38 players, the Reds are proving distinctly useful opponents, particularly on the island and, as always, they have made some shrewd signings this summer. It’s in their DNA. First under Ben Harvey and now Harvey Biljon, Jersey have proved to be absolute masters of talent spotting underrated or hitherto ignored or even discarded talent and developing them into players of substance. And let’s not be coy, the prospect of a couple of seasons on the island is a huge recruiting bonus.
Harry Williams, Richard Barrington, Gary Graham and island boy Le Bourgeois have all progressed from the club and at the end of last season they lost no fewer than seven players to top-flight clubs.
Pat Lam knows a rugby player when he sees one and was impressed by a number of individuals Bristol encountered in the Championship last season, hardly surprising given the Reds victory over his side.
Lam has a big budget and could scour the world for players but had no hesitation in swooping for Jersey’s Jake Armstrong, Jake Woolmore and Aussie Tom Pincus who had all impressed with the Reds while Scott van Breda has been snapped up by Worcester Warriors, Jamie Voss has gon to Leicester Tigers and Kieran Hardy returned to Wales and Scarlets. Ambitious London Irish – rivals again this season – also lost no time in signing Matt Rogerson.
Until they can offer a shot at Premiership rugby it’s a fact of rugby life Jersey will lose such individuals but there is also pride in the role they play and increasingly you look at new Reds signings each season and wonder who will emerge. Somebody always does.
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