An exclusive interview with Josh Bartholomew, Online Editor
Ringfencing the Gallagher Premiership is the debate which plagues English rugby. Its supporters say that it would aid youth development in creating greater opportunities; its critics think that it needlessly inhibits the dreams of lower-level clubs.
Old Hamptonian and Ealing Trailfinders Director of Rugby Ben Ward is firmly in the second camp. Since Ward joined in 2004 as a young fly-half, Ealing have risen from the sixth tier to their current position – second in the Championship, eight points behind star-studded leaders London Irish.
Yet during Ealing’s growth in recent seasons, the ringfencing question has grown all the more prominent as the gulf between the Premiership and Championship has become bigger and bigger.
Ealing Trailfinders are the reason why this debate is still alive, though – without them, the Premiership would already be a closed division, and the dreams of the lower-league clubs eternally dashed. Since gaining promotion to the Championship in 2014/15, Ward’s side have competed fiercely with a number of illustrious teams: first London Irish, then Bristol, and this season Irish again.
But Ealing are at a crossroads. They’re expected to topple teams with Premiership wage bills and Premiership funding every season, yet Trailfinders themselves are admirably intent on maintaining their current wage-structure, harmful as that may be for their promotion hopes.
“It is possible to get promoted without paying Premiership wages, but it’s very difficult,” Ward says. “It’s virtually impossible to stay there, though, without doing it. We would have to change the pay structure if we got promoted, but the difference is we’d get better funding.
“We had a difficult decision to make last year. We wanted to go up to the next level, but do we start paying the wages of Premiership clubs? We decided not to, because if I’m paying someone £35,000 and someone else £180,000, it just doesn’t work for the squad. We want to keep evolving and improve the right way. We’ve only been professional for five years, and we need to grow at the right pace.”
Changing the club’s wage structure to compete at a higher level is not a fast process, but unfortunately for Ealing, time is running out. They are the Championship’s last palpable hope of avoiding their ringfencing nightmare which looks to be creeping ever closer, with talks between the Premiership shareholders (13 clubs, of which Ealing are not one) and the Premiership itself intensifying in recent months.
But after climbing up the leagues so successfully, Ealing are finding the final hurdle rather harder to overcome, with four straight seasons in the Championship and a fifth to come.
Even so, with the disparity between Premiership and Championship wage bills, Ealing would be very unlikely to avoid relegation from the top flight if they were to gain promotion. It doesn’t have to be that way, though, Ward says.
“One of the arguments of the difficulties in staying up is with the way funding is distributed. If London Irish went up, as they’re one of the 13 Premiership shareholders, they’d receive £6.5 million. If we went up, we’d get £2 million, so it’s very difficult.”
Ward speaks candidly, and an obvious steeliness surrounds the man who is widely regarded as one of the most promising English coaches in the game.
With money being splashed around like never before in the second tier, blind comparisons are being made between Ealing and London Welsh. Welsh were promoted in 2013/14, and brought in over 20 players at great cost to the club – five years, multiple High Court hearings and a liquidation later, they reside in the ninth tier.
This link has clearly been put to Ward before, as his demeanour switches from relaxed to frustrated, and he offers a steely defence of his club. “Look at our facilities. I mean no disrespect by this, but London Welsh didn’t actually own much. These whole facilities are able to sustain a business: the 3G pitches (which Super League team London Broncos share), the houses at the back, the stands.
“In everything our owner Mike Gooley has done, he’s been successful. From where he was starting up Trailfinders (the travel agency which Gooley owns) from nothing to his first sale six weeks later, to where the business is now, he’s built them up and makes sure they remain sustainable.
“The conversations I’ve had with him are very similar around the rugby club. He’s invested over £20 million since he joined, and separately £20 million into the sports club.”
As Ward points out, since first investing in Ealing in 1999, businessman Gooley has pumped in excess of £40 million into the team which the Old Hamptonian now coaches. Owning a rugby club is far from lucrative – all but one of the Premiership clubs lost money last year, reaching a combined sum of £50 million.
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And when you add Ealing’s average attendances of only 800, their inferior RFU funding and lack of TV revenue, it doesn’t paint a pretty financial picture. Put it this way: it seems unlikely that Gooley will be expecting a return from his investment in the near future.
For Ealing’s sake, the facilities will need to be able to sustain a business. For now, their wage structure works – both on the pitch and financially. But as the door to the Premiership creeps shut with increasing force each year, Ealing will have to step up. It’s thought that their highest-earning player is on £75,000 a year. In the Premiership, the worst-paid players take home £90,000.
It looks as if Ealing are stepping their promotion campaign up; they’re already strengthened for next season: Bath number eight Paul Grant, Wasps scrum-half Craig Hampson and former Scarlets fly-half Steven Shingler have already signed, and will form a strong core which would not be out of place in the Premiership.
With this comes an increasing wage bill, but there is a sense that with likely relegated team Newcastle perhaps more vulnerable than any other demoted side in recent years, Ealing have an opportunity to finalise the promotion campaign which has been building for seasons.
If, next season, Ealing do overcome Newcastle (or whoever else drops to the Championship) and gain promotion, what would need to happen to survive? “An awful lot”, Ward admits with refreshing candour.
“First of all, we’d need to have a ground to play at, because we wouldn’t quite meet the requirements at the moment. The whole organisation would be growing. The biggest question mark would be over what we pay players, because you need that quality to survive.”
It’s a lesson that Ealing’s current Championship rivals London Irish learnt last season. Storming through the second-tier, losing only one game in the 2016/17 campaign, Irish were relegated by a distance despite some marquee signings.
It would not, then, be unfair to suggest that the gap between the two divisions is too pronounced, with teams dominating the second-tier before returning a season later demoralised, beaten-up and outclassed. It didn’t used to be the case – teams like Exeter and Worcester have both risen from the second-tier – but the problem for the RFU is that these examples are scarce.
The inescapable fact remains that the sport has changed. “Rugby, as it is now, is fundamentally the same,” Ward says. “What has changed is the amount of funding going into the Premiership. If they made the funding in the Premiership and Championship equal, I think you’d have more tier-two clubs getting promoted. The difficulty now is that the difference in funding is so big because the 13 shareholders have tried to protect themselves.”
Ward is critical of the current Premiership clubs, but who knows, perhaps he could be coaching one of them in the near future? With such a dearth of young English coaching talent, Ward’s stock is rising, but whether he chooses to stay at Ealing or move up is another question, and he’s clearly loyal to the progress he’s made in West London. “I’m incredibly proud, and enjoying the journey.
“To be able to play with your mates, with a lot of promotions and success along the way, to go into coaching and win the British and Irish Cup last year. I’m pretty proud.”
And proud he should be – for all the success stories in English rugby, Ealing’s is the most impressive, the most encouraging, yet strangely, for the powers that be, the most frustrating. Still, in years to come, when the next Exeter comes through, we may just look at Ward and Gooley as the pair who saved the sport.