Charlie Beckett Exclusive: 'Whatever happens, the second tier has to play an integral part in the overall game'

Charlie Beckett's stellar career has largely been spent in the Championship
©John Ashton

With the way the final day is poised in the regular Gallagher Premiership season, it would be easy to say; 'This is what sport is all about.’

The race for the play-offs has gone to the wire and with just three points separating seventh-placed Bristol Bears and Sale Sharks (4th), it is set to be a dramatic afternoon on Saturday.

The excitement the league has provided, the bonkers scorelines and the emergence of some rising stars are just a few of the ingredients which have created an engrossing season.

But while eyes will be on the top of the division, there will be considerably less fanfare towards the bottom.

With Newcastle Falcons and Gloucester experiencing stinging losses in recent weeks, the threat of relegation would have added another layer of intrigue to the campaign.

If the format of relegation was similar to that of National One and Two, for example, Newcastle would have been gone weeks ago. The Falcons have lost all 17 of their Premiership matches this term.

But under the current minimum standards criteria, Championship winners Ealing Trailfinders are not eligible for promotion to the Premiership meaning the status quo in the top-flight will remain for another season.

“I don’t think there is a single sport where taking the jeopardy away makes it more interesting to watch,” says Doncaster Knights forward Charlie Beckett.

“At the top end [of the Championship], yes, there does need to be promotion even if it is what it is this year that if the top team is eligible to go up, they play a play-off with the bottom team [in the Premiership] which is Newcastle.

“If you look at the ‘access’ game between the Pro D2 and the Top 14 [in France], it is one of the biggest games in rugby because of that.

“What we need to do is somehow work out a way where more Championship clubs are eligible to go up. The whole conversation about whether the current criteria is fair etc etc, I am not going to get into that but Ealing won the league this year.

“How intriguing would a two-legged or even a single-leg up at Kingston Park play-off be against Newcastle right now regardless of criteria etc etc?

"You can’t tell me that Ealing wouldn’t potentially be favourites with the way Newcastle’s season has gone. We need to find a way whether that be bringing the criteria down or whether that is improving the Championship clubs. There isn’t an easy answer."

Under the present minimum standards criteria in place, only Beckett’s Doncaster Knights would have been eligible for promotion this season but the Yorkshire outfit are currently in fifth place and 20 points behind Ealing.

With the future of the second tier set to be reshaped as part of the new Professional Game Partnership, the issue of promotion and relegation continues to be a sticking point between Championship clubs, Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Football Union.

Last week, The Telegraph reported that Championship clubs have ‘called upon the government’ to meditate in any conversations on this particular matter, which in Beckett’s eyes, highlights a recurring problem.

“I think that conversation - [between Championship clubs and MPs] even potentially happening shows the mess we are in.

“We started losing clubs almost two years ago now [the demises of Wasps, Worcester, London Irish and most recently Jersey Reds] and it looked like it might trigger reform and two years later, I honestly don't think I have got any more idea about what is happening with the second tier. That isn’t even tongue-in-cheek.

“There are a lot of things that need to be fixed like promotion and relegation and things the league and clubs can do better but I think there is a lot of help that can be given to the league by PRL, the RFU, by these people in power.

“I will say it till I am blue in the face. It confuses me how anyone can argue there isn’t value in a successful, prospering second tier. You can give it a new name but a good, strong second-tier of rugby in England, I truly believe is only a good thing in general. If you try and argue that a largely professional set-up isn’t an important part of that, then I don’t understand what you’re looking at to make that decision.”

For Beckett - who has represented Jersey, Ealing, Ampthill and Doncaster in the Championship - it is the lack of clarity on subjects such as promotion and relegation and the handling of the league’s future which is harming its progress.

“If you’re a player looking to sign for a Championship club or an investor looking to invest into a Championship club, there are two things which I think are holding it back,” Beckett continues

“One is the confusion about what is happening with the second tier which leads to uncertainty for clubs in terms of their own futures but secondly, and something else which will stop people investing, is when the union which runs the competition is genuinely, publicly saying they see no value in it, why in the world would anybody else see value in it?

“Apart from the people who run the game in this country, I haven’t seen anyone else online, in the media, in the newspapers, when I have spoken to people, no one else is saying they don’t see the value in the Championship.

“Those who do come and watch the games, they rarely leave disappointed. The number of people who have come up to me and said; ‘Wow, that was better than I was expecting. There is your problem. People come to games expecting it not to be a great brand of rugby because of all the negativity and lack of understanding about the future of the league.

“It doesn’t seem like there are two sides to this argument. It feels like it is the people who run the game and then everybody else. That baffles me.”

Beckett is quick to stress that the ‘mess’ surrounding the second tier ‘doesn’t solely fall at the door of the RFU’ and the league and the clubs themselves could increase their output to help market the Championship.

The 28-year-old, himself, is playing his role as part of the Championship Clubs Podcast, but he believes for forward steps to be taken, there needs to be cohesion if there is to be a bright and ‘prosperous’ future for the second-tier - a competition which has given so much to Beckett personally.

Last week, the former Leicester Tigers and Gloucester player announced his retirement with his final game set to be against Hartpury next Saturday.

“If there wasn’t a Championship that had professional rugby, I wouldn’t have been a professional rugby player for half the time I was,” Beckett says. “I have spent I think five or six seasons in the Championship now. I think I am around 110, 111 games.

"If I don’t have the Championship, this career doesn’t happen. I don’t get to live my dreams. I haven’t achieved all the things I was dreaming of. I never grew up dreaming I would be a Championship rugby player. I grew up dreaming of playing in the Premiership, playing for England, playing for the Lions however, fundamentally, I dreamt of being a professional rugby player. Without the Championship, that would have ended for me around 22.

“I have a lot of love for this league. People have a lot of love for this league and I think - and it's a conversation I have had a million times - this league is so brilliant.”

Beckett admits the reason he has hung up the boots is because the enjoyment factor doesn’t burn as brightly as it once did. This has nothing to do with any of the problems facing the game at the moment, but what he will continue to strive for is a flourishing second tier.

“I think a competitive and prospering and good second tier whether it is Championship Rugby or Premiership 2, I think we have already seen the effect it has on the England men’s national team. Take one of the most recent examples, Theo Dan. He came to us at Ampthill at the start of last season. By the end of the season, he is going to the World Cup with England. That wouldn’t happen without the Championship I don't think.

“That is an obvious advantage to the men’s national team that these young players can go and get experience and then step back up otherwise they are just training. You have got to be playing rugby to get better.

“Apart from the fact that I know I am biased, there is clearly so much value in the league so whatever the changes are or overhaul is to the game, the second tier has to be part of that."