GK IPA Championship Preview: Saracens ready for second-tier bow

Saracens' opening game in the Championship sees them travel to Cornish Pirates
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The Championship is finally back after a 12-month absence.

The format: A 10 round shootout where the 11 clubs taking part will play each other home OR away and it will culminate in a two-legged play-off final to decide who wins promotion to the top flight.

The odd number of participants sees one team on a bye week each round. With relegation suspended for the season, 10 clubs will be re-joined next term by London Scottish, who felt unable to compete this time out due to the disruption and impact caused by Covid over the last year.

Much of the excitement centres around how Saracens will fare. The multiple European and domestic champions find themselves in the division having been relegated due to salary cap breaches. They are set to do battle with ambitious Ealing, runners-up for the past three seasons and already twice victors over Sarries in pre-season.

The other ‘new’ side in the division are Richmond. After relegation from National One at the end of the 2018/19 season, they bounced straight back up as champions of the third tier.

Familiar faces from last year’s aborted campaign in Ampthill, Bedford Blues, Cornish Pirates, Coventry, Doncaster Knights, Hartpury University, Jersey Reds and Nottingham make up the other eight teams.

Despite all the trials and tribulations faced since the last bit of Championship action, its now time to let rugby do the talking once more, so without further ado, here are your Round 1 match-ups:

Hartpury v Richmond

Venue: Alpas Arena

Kick-off: Saturday 6th March, 13:15

An enticing opening fixture to get the season underway between two resourceful clubs who have become well acquainted over recent years.

Both have worked their way up from the National Leagues to the Championship within the last decade, facing off in each of the three tiers along the way.

2018/19 saw them win a game apiece against one another, with the home side securing a comfortable bonus-point victory on each occasion. It was Hartpury who stayed up at Richmond’s expense that season, adding an extra dimension to this clash.

Last season, again, we saw Hartpury finish in 11th once the RFU confirmed the final table, whilst Richmond bounced straight back up as champions of National One.

An interrupted pre-season has shed little light on the form of these two sides. Hartpury shared a 50 minute hit out with Gloucester going down 10-7, whilst Richmond renewed their rivalry with Ealing, finishing the wrong end of a 33-24 scoreline.

Hartpury’s squad is much changed, with several experienced players moving on, replaced by those less tested at Championship level, including several straight out of University.

The absentee which the Gloucestershire side will most sorely miss is Seb Nagle-Taylor. One of the stars of last year’s Championship, he has been ruled out by injury, with a permanent move to Gloucester for next season long confirmed.

Richmond have retained a strong contingent of the team who won promotion whilst adding 14 fresh faces from around the Championship and National One.

With precious little for the new recruits to bed in and such a lack of game time, this one is tough to call. The absence of relegation should take some of the pressure off and allow more freedom and risk across the division.

It all makes for a fascinating opening match, where both these sides will be desperate to get off to a good start and gain an early win for the season ahead.

Coventry v Bedford Blues

Venue: Butts Park Arena

Kick-off: Saturday 6th March, 15:00

A mouth-watering Midlands match-up as Bedford make the short journey to Coventry to reignite a fixture settled by less than a score in favour of the home side on each of the four occasions since Cov returned to the Championship in 2018/19.

The hosts managed a fourth-place finish last season, thanks largely to their imperious home form winning 6 out of 7 at Butts Park.

Meanwhile, the Blues eventually came in at eighth place, winning only two games on the road over the course of last season, those against Yorkshire Carnegie and London Scottish, respectively.

Both sides have suffered mixed results in pre-season but have at least managed to play multiple 80-minute fixtures. Coventry won a 34-33 epic at home to Jersey before losing out to Saracens home and away 48-33 and 47-12., respectively.

For Bedford, they shared the spoils against neighbours Ampthill. The Blues held out for a 36-33 away win, with the A’s returning the favour by inflicting a 36-21 defeat at Goldington Road the following weekend.

Cov have lost some big names in the prolonged off-season, with Rory Jennings, Gareth Denman, Luke Wallace and David Halaifonua all moving on. Their recruitment includes Nic Dolly, plus a return for Tom Emery, and he is supplemented with some exciting dual-registered players such as Sam Lewis (Leicester), Callum Sirker (Wasps), Joe Snow (Exeter) and Kieran Wilkinson (Sale).

Bedford have also said goodbye to some key players, with Will Hooley, Dan Temm and Grayson Hart bidding them farewell for alternative endeavours.

They announced a new strategic partnership with Northampton at the beginning of last summer, meaning a large contingent of Saints players will turn out for the Blues during the season, having already trained with them for some time now.

Elijah Niko headlines their permanent new signings, with Oli Robinson and Ewan Fenley following him from Ealing in the form of season-long loans.

.Expect this to be another ding-dong tussle with home advantage giving a slight edge.

Cornish Pirates v Saracens

Venue: Mennaye Field

Kick-off: Saturday 6th March, 15:00

Championship mainstays Cornish Pirates are tasked with laying on a welcoming committee for Saracens, as the multiple Premiership and European champions are tasked with a tricky trip to Penzance as they look to bounce back following their demotion to the second tier.

Plundering the Pirates will be no mean feat, however. The home side won seven of their eight league games at Mennaye Field last season, including their last six in a row.

Their lofty ambitions were matched by their on-field performances, finishing third and still pushing for the runners-up spot.

As for Saracens, anything other than promotion will be deemed a huge failure. With so much world-class talent having left and such a tight schedule, nothing can, or will, be taken for granted in the Championship. All eyes will be on them with the neutrals patiently waiting for any sort of slip up.

Pirates’ sole pre-season outing saw them host Jersey, warming up for the main event with a 26-13 victory against their Channel Island visitors.

Saracens fixture list in preparation was far less routine and caused a certain amount of furore amongst the masses, namely in the Trailfinders Cup which also involved Ealing and Doncaster.

They twice lost to organisers Ealing, and in between those games, they had their trip to Doncaster cancelled following a Covid outbreak in the Sarries camp before finishing off with a routine 29-10 win at the StoneX Stadium.

That mini-tournament was followed up by the pair of victories over Coventry which closed off a rollercoaster pre-season for Mark McCall’s men.

Pirates head into this campaign without the playing services of their two legendary Canadian Internationals, Matt Evans and former captain Brett Beukeboom who both hung up their boots for good once last season was officially curtailed.

They have also lost one of the 'Championship’s All-Stars' in Kyle Moyle, who moved to Gloucester permanently at the back end of 2020, whilst last season’s top points scorer Javier Rojas Alvarez recently departed following knee surgery.

Josh Caulfield and James McRae have joined the side permanently from Exeter Chiefs after previously being dual-registered, whilst former Exeter University fly-half Harry Bazalgette makes the same journey with further depth at 10 secured with the loan of Luke Scully from Cardiff.

Saracens have a huge list of world-class departures, including Will Skelton, Brad Barritt, Richard Wigglesworth, Ben Spencer and George Kruis, with their stocks even further gutted having loaned out Ben Earl, Max Malins, Alex Goode, Nick Isiekwe and Nick Tompkins for the season. They will also be without their Six Nations stars whilst the tournament concludes.

Despite the eye-watering list of outs, they still possess an excellent squad and they were able to soften the blow of their departures early, adding firepower and Championship experience in the form of Juan Pablo Socino, Harry Sloan, Janco Venter, Will Hooley and Alec Clarey.

Pirates will fancy their chances of an opening day shock, whilst Saracens will quickly want to silence their doubters and lay down an early marker.

Nottingham v Ealing Trailfinders

Venue: Lady Bay Sportsground

Kick-off: Sunday 7th March, 13:00

Lady Bay sees the Green and Whites face off against one another, as Nottingham welcome promotion-chasing Ealing, having navigated extremely different paths over the last year.

Last time out, the hosts settled for seventh place for the second successive season whilst the visitors made it a hat-trick of runners-up finishes.

They played each other only once last season, with Ealing coming out on top 18-10 at The Bay.

Nottingham have had no pre-season matches to speak of, but in changes to their rugby model, they have retained professional status but on a much more part-time basis, with players combining their rugby with other jobs.

Their departures include Shane O’Leary, Oisin Heffernan, Jack Spittle and David Williams.

An entourage of dual-reg players from around the Premiership and Pro14 - plus a sextet of Nottingham Trent University players - will add plenty of depth alongside the signings of Carl Kirwan, Josh Buggea, Ben Betts and Charlie Thacker amongst numerous others.

Ealing come into the season with no thoughts of scaling back whatsoever. A hugely ambitious and diligent worldwide recruitment drive has been reflected in a nine-game pre-season, stretching back to November and bearing 8 wins for the Trailfinders.

A conveyor belt of talent has moved either way from the club, with names such as Jordy Reid, Reon Joseph, Andrew Durutalo and Harry Sloan amongst the long list of leavers.

The list of incomings is incredible and difficult to compact. Highlights include Guy Thompson, Charlie Walker, Dean Hammond, Angus Kernohan, Max Bodilly, Fraser Strachan, Abongile Nonkontwana and Bobby de Wee as well as plenty of others.

No one could accuse Ealing of doing any less than the maximum in their bid to reach the top flight and this may well be their best chance in what is a significantly shortened season.

Coming into this one potentially undercooked and with no match fitness to speak of is far from ideal for Nottingham, not least against an incredibly well prepared, well-stocked and well funded Ealing outfit who dispatched Saracens twice in pre-season.

Ampthill v Doncaster Knights

Venue: Dillingham Park

Kick-off: Sunday 7th March, 13:00

Championship regulars Doncaster make the journey to last season’s surprise package Ampthill, as week one of the season is rounded off at Dillingham Park.

The A’s achieved fifth place in their maiden voyage into the second flight last season, having won five promotions in 12 years. Tenth was where the Knights ended up off the back of a mixed season, which included a five-point deduction for using an unregistered agent.

The only game between the two in 2019/20 ended in a thrilling 30-26 home victory for Ampthill, with both sides securing try bonus points.

Ampthill’s pre-season consisted of the home and away fixtures against Bedford, with the A’s claiming the spoils with an aggregate scoreline victory.

Doncaster suffered those three Trailfinders Cup defeats, two to Ealing and one to Saracens before an extra rest week before this one.

There are no wholesale changes at Ampthill, rather some astute replacements. Tongan pair Maama Molitika and Soane Tonga’uiha are two who have exited the club, but coming in are the likes of TRU Columnist Charlie Beckett, James Flynn and Alex Humfrey, who was an absolute standout for Yorkshire Carnegie last season.

Doncaster have a rather larger list of ins and outs. No longer plying their trade for the Knights are Michael Hills, Colin Quigley and Tyson Lewis who have all retired, plus those who have moved or were released include Tom James and Lloyd Hayes.

Incomings include Jerry Sexton, Gareth Denman, Jack Spittle and James Mitchell to the playing squad. On the coaching staff, Steve Boden has succeeded the legendary Clive Griffiths as Head Coach, with Joe Ford also added to the coaching ticket, taking charge of the backs having retired from playing.

A repeat of the excitement this fixture offered last season would be welcomed. Doncaster will hope to improve on 2019/20’s showing whilst Ampthill will be looking to build on a highly successful first outing.

BYE WEEK

Jersey Reds

Jersey are the odd team out in Round 1, giving them an extra week on the sidelines before returning to competitive action.

The Reds ended up in sixth last season, stumbling to four straight losses before the cut-off.

They will play only three home matches instead of five over the season due to travel concerns, with the first of those not until Round 7.

Pre-season saw them lose twice on the road, first to Coventry and then to Pirates so they will be desperate to end their run of losses sooner rather than later, but first up is a trip to Saracens in Round 2.

Much player upheaval for the Channel Islands club in the off-season has seen Lee Roy Atalifo, Leroy Van Dam, Augustin Slowik, Alec Clarey, Janco Venter, Rodney Ioan, Will Homer and Luc Jones moving to all corners of the globe.

It has left room for Lewis Wynne, Michael Dowsett, Kurt Heatherley, Lesley Klim and Macauley Cook to lead the charge of players replacing them in Saint Peter.

Jersey have finished in the top half of the table routinely for several seasons now and with seven away trips from 10 matches, that would be another fine achievement in 2020/21.

Up to five matches in each round will be live-streamed on https://www.championshiprugby.co.uk/live-streams on a pay-per-view basis with revenue being split between the home and away teams.

Championship Points Table