TRU contributor Connor Hickinbottom looks at this season’s contenders in the GK IPA Championship.
Irish will be looking to return to the newly named Gallagher Premiership at the first time of asking. They will do this with a newly bolstered squad featuring an abundance of international players.
There are nine new players in total joining the London Irish ranks, but it is Samoan international Motu Matu’u who could potentially have the biggest impact. The former Hurricanes and Gloucester hooker looks set to take over the role from the retiring captain David Paice.
After a fifteen-year career with the Exiles that saw him win 250 caps Paice hung up his boots at the end of last season, meaning Irish will be without their leader when they take to field on the 1st of September.
It hasn’t been a great start to the 2018/19 season for Irish, losing both of their pre-season games against Munster and then Leicester Tigers.
MATCH PREVIEW | @topsy_ojo and @StephenMyler look ahead to tomorrow's opening @Champrugby fixture away to @ealingtfrugby.— London Irish (@LiRFC) August 31, 2018
??? Our first home game of the season is against @NottinghamRugby on Sat 8 Sep (kick-off 3pm). Tickets are available from https://t.co/fGKtRK5zpA. pic.twitter.com/og1qJQWqi2
Unfortunately for Irish, they kick-start the campaign with the hardest possible fixture of the season. Ealing Trailfinders away.
It is difficult to look past the Exiles as potential champions. A lot will be determined when they travel to the Trailfinders Sports Club on Saturday evening. If they can pick up the win against Ealing, there is a strong possibility Irish will finish the season unbeaten, surpassing their previous record of 19 wins and one loss in the 2016/17 season.
Prediction: If London Irish beat Ealing they will finish the season unbeaten. 1st place.
The Trailfinders were third in 16/17, second in 17/18, and they are now looking to continue this streak and top the Championship in the 18/19 season.
This will be Ealing’s fourth season in the second-tier of English rugby, but could it possibly be their last? They are being rightly touted to cause a massive upset and spoil London Irish’s party.
Last season saw Ealing win 16 of their 22 league games whilst also winning the British & Irish Cup for the first time in their history.
Ultimately this year, the aim for Ealing is to top the league and achieve promotion to the Premiership. They have recruited heavily in a bid to make that dream a reality, bringing in a total of 30 new players – a mixture of old and young recruits with varied experience.
The Trailfinders, like their promotion rivals London Irish, struggled in pre-season having won just one of their three games. However, it is this Saturday’s game which will give a good indication as to whether Ealing can reach those heights.
They face London Irish at home in front of the Sky Sports cameras and having lost both of their encounters against the Exiles in the 2016/17 season, they will be looking to enact some retribution and start the season on the front foot.
Prediction: Could this be the Trailfinders year? If they beat Irish in their first game they may just do it, however, I think Irish’s experience will show and Ealing will finish a close 2nd.
Jersey have finished fifth in the Championship for the past two years - could this be the year they finally crack the top four?
The Reds are notoriously one of the most physical teams in the Championship. They are combative side who rely heavily on their forwards to dominate their opponents.
Their summer signings are proof of this. They have added a handful of Southern Hemisphere players, including four South Africans, bringing their total to 17 new signings.
Jersey have always been stronger at home; therefore, they may not show their full potential until late September as their first three fixtures are on the road.
Despite their sometimes questionable away form, the Reds can always rely on their performances on their own patch to pick up points. They were the only team to beat London Irish in the 2016/17 season – a feat they will be looking to replicate when they host the Exiles in November.
Jersey have enjoyed a successful pre-season, winning two out of their three fixtures with their only defeat coming to Premiership side Harlequins.
They travel to newly promoted Coventry for the first game of the season, the potential surprise package of the 2018/19 season.
Prediction: If the Reds can emulate their form at St Peter’s to their games away from home, they will go far. Slow start but strong finish for Jersey - 3rd place.
The Blues edged out the Cornish Pirates by just a single point to finish third-place last year, their highest finish since the 2012/13 season.
They will be looking to follow this up with another top four finish this season, hoping to lead them to this is former England scrum-half and new captain Lee Dickson.
Dickson has stressed the importance of putting pressure on Ealing and Irish at the top, the addition of young Saracens duo Jack Nay and Tadgh McElroy will further fuel their goals.
Bedford will be looking to cement their place in the upper-echelons of the Championship, with just five points separating third and sixth place last year a single loss could have changed the way their season was portrayed.
The Blues join the long list of teams with a far from perfect pre-season record, winning just once against National League One outfit Bishop Stortford. They will be hoping for a better start to the season when they face Nottingham on Sunday afternoon.
Prediction: Bedford to be just as strong as they were last season but to just lose out to Jersey for third spot. 4th place.
The Knights will be aiming to make up for a disappointing campaign in which they finished seventh last season.
Donny struggled last year, winning just nine of their 22 games and finishing outside the top four for the first time since the 2014/15 season.
They have brought in 10 new players as they aim to climb back up the table, including Fijian scrum-half Henry Seniloli and Tongan fly-half Kurt Morath. The Pacific Islanders will be hoping to create a formidable half-back pairing that will march Donny back up the league once more.
The Knights lost two of their three pre-season games as they tested themselves against tough opposition, experiencing the quality of both Sale Sharks and Newcastle Falcons. Their solo victory came against Sale FC.
Whilst the Knights may enter the league on the back of the loss to the Falcons, their tough preparations may pay dividends. They travel to Penzance for the first game of the season to face Cornish Pirates, a fixture that the Knights have historically struggled - their last victory at Mennaye Field coming all the way back in February 2016.
Prediction: Donny to regroup after a disappointing season and show, once again, the talent that got them to the 2015/16 Play-Off final is still there. 5th place.
The Pirates have bid farewell to many of their old guard following their fourth-place finish in the 2017/18 season as six of their players retired.
They will be hoping a host of new players can pick up from where the parting players left off, including Argentinian 7s star, Javier Rojas.
Rojas made 88 appearances over a four-year Sevens career, scoring 358 points in total, a record the Pirates will be hoping is brought to Penzance.
The Pirates go into the season in good form, having won all their pre-season games, including a 29-21 victory over last year’s Premiership runners-up, Exeter Chiefs.
They kick-start their season with back-to-back fixtures at The Mennaye, hosting Doncaster Knights first, a side they have an exceptional record against.
The Pirates have been improving with every season that passes so they will be hoping that is the case once more.
Prediction: The Pirates might not improve in terms of places, but it won’t be as close at the top. A solid 4th place finish.
Yorkshire Carnegie were one of the strongest teams in the Championship just a few seasons ago, but after a sixth-place finish last year, it is difficult to see where Carnegie go from here.
The Leeds-based outfit have once again seen several of their players leave Headingley to join up with rival Championship teams.
Despite underperforming last season, you can’t look past Carnegie as one of the best sides in the league, they have proven on numerous occasions that they know how to win so whilst they might not be at their best, they should still perform enough to finish in the top half of the league.
Their new starters will be looking to get them back to winning ways, with six players set to make their debuts against Hartpury College on Friday night, including two Canadian internationals, Dan Moor and Jake Ilnicki.
Carnegie scored the fourth fewest amount of points last season so if they stand any chance of staying in the top half of the table, they will need to make sure this is rectified.
Prediction: Not a vintage season for Carnegie, but they will grind out enough victories to take 5th place.
There is no bigger day in Richmond’s calendar than their game against London Scottish, the team they share the Athletic Ground with.
It just so happens that this takes place in their very first game of the season.
Richmond will play the role of hosts on Saturday afternoon as they look to kick off another season of improvement.
Richmond have slowly moved up the league, finishing 10th and then 9th over the past two years. Will they be able to go one further and clinch 8th this time around?
Director of Rugby Steve Hill ensured that Richmond entered the 2018/19 season with the strongest squad possible. For Richmond, this meant retaining many of their current players with 34 players re-signing for the upcoming campaign.
This player retention, as well their new recruits, should take Richmond to another level. They still have a hefty challenge ahead of them, but they certainly have a strong enough squad to ensure another year in the Championship.
Prediction: Richmond continue to move up the league a place at a time, ultimately finishing 8th. The Premiership better watch out when the 2025/26 season rolls around!
Coventry ended a nine-year wait to return to the Championship as they dominated National League One, winning 27 of their 30 matches.
Cov were unstoppable last season, scoring 1213 points on their journey to promotion. A lot of promoted teams may just look to secure safety in their first season in the Championship, but not Coventry. They are looking to make a statement and showcase their skill.
They have brought in 13 players, many of whom are tried and tested in the Championship to ensure they aren’t just surviving, but rather, thriving.
Coventry’s signings include the Bulumakau brothers from Donny, former Northampton Saints Ben Nutley and Tom Kessell as well as Tongan International David Halaifonua from Gloucester.
Director of Rugby Rowland Winter has said Coventry will be taking the games week-by-week, but with the team he has assembled, the Midlands club could be the surprise package of this season.
The Butts Park Arena will have its first taste of Championship rugby in almost a decade when they welcome the Jersey Reds on Saturday.
Prediction: Coventry look very capable of causing a shock in the Championship. Time will tell just how much of a shock this will be but a 9th place finish certainly looks possible.
Hartpury are no longer the new boys on the block. There first season in the Championship wasn’t a full success as the Red & Blacks failed to see out numerous games they should have won.
They will be looking to improve from their first campaign and ensure their place in the second tier of English rugby for another year.
Hartpury start their season when they host Yorkshire Carnegie under the lights on Friday evening. This will be a stern test for the Red & Blacks who will rely on an abundance of home grown talent to get the victory.
The hosts have announced a team of no less than nine current or former Hartpury College students.
Hartpury will also have several new signings taking to the field at the Gillman’s Ground, including a brand-new halfback pairing in Luke Cozens and Richard Bolt, who is a former Premiership winner with Harlequins.
These new signings will be led by another new member, Simon Linsell, who joined from the University of Exeter.
It will be a solid test for Hartpury to start their season with and they will need to hit the ground running if they want to continue their improvement.
Prediction: Hartpury to continue their steady improvement with a 10th place finish.
Nottingham have been on a steady decline since the 2014/15 season where they ended the campaign in fifth place. Following that, they have finished between 7th and 10th place every year.
Last term, they won 10 of their 22 games, amassing a total of 52 points for the season. Unfortunately for Nottingham their issues lied in defence. The Green & Whites had the fourth worst defensive record in the league – something they hope their new signings will be able to aid.
Nottingham have strengthened their pack ahead of the season bringing in several players in key positions that they believe will plug last season’s faults and have them firing on all cylinders.
The Bay was treated to some of this talent in pre-season as Nottingham cruised to a 53-0 victory over last years relegated side, Rotherham Titans.
They will be hoping they can start their season with a similar result when they play host to Bedford Blues on Sunday afternoon.
Prediction – There haven’t been enough signings made to really solve the problems at The Bay so I think it will be a disappointing 11th place finish.
It was a tough season for London Scottish last year as they won just six games resulting in an 11th place finsh.
Despite their poor form there was, fortunately for Scottish, never any relegation worries as they finished 26 points ahead of Rotherham Titans.
With the quality of the Championship continuing to improve year-on-year, it could prove to be another year that Scottish fight for survival.
They will, however, be buoyed by the return of number 8 Mark Bright who is back at the Athletic Ground after a two-year stint with Ealing as club captain. Bright was prolific for Scottish over his 123 appearances, scoring a record 26 tries in the 2014/15 season.
Scottish will need Bright to emulate this form if they stand any hope of survival and with their first game being a local derby against Richmond, whom they share a ground with, Bright will have to hit the ground running.
Bright has been joined by a further 18 signings, with London Scottish heavily strengthening their squad in the hopes of surviving.
Prediction: Unfortunately, this season will prove to be too much for London Scottis. Last place but not by much.