The waiting is the hardest part. By now the players of Ealing Trailfinders and Saracens must feel more like dust-covered museum exhibits than professional athletes, a throwback to a distant era. Ealing have not had a competitive league game since last February, Saracens’ last fixture before their Premiership relegation was on 4 October. The forgotten warriors of the Championship have had their mental strength sorely tested.
It is the next phase, though, that really counts. Beyond Saturday’s campaign-opening loosener between the two London clubs in rugby’s newest tournament, the Trailfinders Challenge Cup, lies a defining decision. All the talk is of the Premiership being expanded to 13 sides and then ringfenced, with the suspension of relegation and Saracens’ return to the elite widely perceived as formalities. Like so much else in rugby, the reality is less straightforward.
High stakes are very much involved. Listen, for example, to Ben Ward, Ealing Trailfinders’ impressive director of rugby, as he discusses the club’s new indoor training centre (building work commenced this week), their significant academy and women’s rugby investments and the eye-watering backing of chief benefactor Mike Gooley and his family. “Mike and Fiona have invested over £25 million in Ealing Trailfinders Rugby Club and over £25m into the sports club through the Trailfinders charity,” says Ward. “They haven’t done that to disappear. This isn’t just about our first team. We’re building something that’s going to be here in 25-50 years’ time. It’s not just a short-term plan.”
With the possibility of staging games at nearby Loftus Road should the club go up, there is nil sense of west London becoming the sole backyard of London Irish, who are now back at Brentford. Ward, on the contrary, oozes both calm assurance and measured ambition. “We want to play at the highest level we can and sustain that. To do that we have to build up the infrastructure so that when we do win that league we’re ready. If you look at what’s happened to other clubs like London Welsh, it’s not just about getting into the Premiership.”
On the pitch, certainly, any inferiority complex is dissolving. “Four or five years ago we couldn’t beat any Premiership sides,” adds Ward, who first played for Ealing in 2004 when they were in London 2 North. “Two years ago we beat a very strong London Irish side and we beat Newcastle 38-17 in a pre-season friendly in November. I think we’re really closing the gap now.”
Alex Sanderson has pledged not to raid his former club Saracens, having been unveiled as Sale’s new director of rugby. Sanderson returns to the club for whom he made 90 appearances to fill the void left by Steve Diamond’s departure, having spent 17 years at Saracens.
In that time, Sanderson established himself as one of the brightest English coaches around and yesterday revealed he has turned down recent job offers from two international sides and two from other Premiership clubs.
It took the prospect of taking over at his former club – back in his native north west – to prize him from Saracens, but he does not intend to tempt any of his former players into following him.
"Mark McCall has made me promise that I wouldn’t take anyone else!" Sanderson said. "No is the answer, not immediately. I think we’re pretty settled." Gerard Meagher
Ask the 36-year-old, though, whether he thinks the rest of the Premiership really want a modern-day “ET” in their midst and he chuckles wryly. It is for others to discuss the politics but splitting central revenue 14 ways instead of 13 is not the easiest sell. Then again, is it really in English rugby’s best interests to suffocate ambitious Championship sides or encourage extortionate top-tier joining fees? “This club has still got so much potential to grow,” says Ward. “When Exeter were in the Championship they had relatively small crowds until they moved to a new ground. These things take time. We only turned fully professional seven years ago.
“The thing that annoys me more is that people don’t understand the unfairness of funding. That because we’re not a shareholder we would, as things stand, be severely disadvantaged. But it’s for the people at PRL and, hopefully, Conor O’Shea at the RFU to look at what’s best for English rugby. I look at France who have just got their third professional league. We want to produce our own players, have a strong women’s programme and improve the facilities further. We’re doing things the right way and I like to think we’re adding something to English rugby.”
All this will be of interest to Saracens as they rebuild in the wake of the club’s salary cap scandal and demotion. How uncomfortable it must be for a competitive animal like Mark McCall to watch, for example, Ben Earl and Max Malins running around on loan for Bristol and his right-hand man Alex Sanderson leaving for Sale Sharks. With Sanderson gone, Joe Shaw will become head coach with Adam Powell the new defence coach but director of rugby McCall rejects any notion of a mortal blow to the club’s longer-term plans, and said: “It is a pretty average organisation that just relies on one individual.”
On Saturday, to reinforce the point, the Saracens XV contains only three regular starters – Billy Vunipola, Vincent Koch and Duncan Taylor – with their other England players not set to play any competitive rugby before the Six Nations. The bigger issue for McCall is that no one knows how many Championship clubs will be able to kick off the abbreviated season as scheduled on 6 March. Losing out to Ealing in a play-off at the end of a cobbled-together Championship campaign would be Sarries’ ultimate nightmare.
As it happens, though, McCall is in no rush, if successful, to haul up the promotion ladder behind him. “I think if there is ringfencing it shouldn’t be closed. If there is a club who have the resources and wherewithal to come into the Premiership they be allowed to do that. There’s no reason why it can’t be more than a 13-team Premiership. There’s also no reason to stop a club with ambition.”
Ward unsurprisingly agrees entirely. “We’re against ringfencing, whether you had 10, 12, 14 or 16 teams. England generally do well at World Cups because our players play pressure games. And in the Premiership in the last two years a lot of the interest has been around the bottom of the table. Do they want to take that away from their product? I also don’t like the idea of delaying promotion and relegation for a couple of years because then the gap expands even further. Effectively, you are ringfencing it anyway. It either goes or stays or changes to a different format.
“It wouldn’t bother me if there was a play-off between the bottom of the Premiership and the top of the Championship. If we’re not good enough to beat a team at the bottom of the Premiership, I don’t think we’re good enough to go up. But I am confident we’re now getting to the stage where we can put those kind of performances in and win games.” Could they yet upset a distracted Saracens? This contrasting tale of two city rivals could run and run.