Nottingham Rugby - illustration: Adam Poole
It's been a chaotic summer for English rugby. From British Telecom and BSkyB's respective multi-million pound contracts for “exclusive” television rights, lighting the fuse of the ticking time bomb that is the Heineken Cup (although that’s a long and far-too-complex story for here), to the collection of clubs taking legal action against the Rugby Football Union over a potential loss of revenue caused by the hosting of the 2015 World Cup, the public perception seems to be one of a game in turmoil, and not without reason. The state of play in the Championship – England's second tier and home to Nottingham Rugby Football Club – is no less tumultuous.
The shock promotion from the Championship last season of an unfancied London Welsh side has stirred up the second tier. Where once RFU regulations would have made it difficult for a team of London Welsh's size to reach the top flight, their successful legal challenge of the game's governing body to allow them to compete in the AVIVA Premiership despite not meeting the minimum standards criteria has reinvigorated the league. Their successful legal appeal built around UK and EU competition laws means that for many clubs – Nottingham Rugby included – the promised land of the Premiership may now feel a little closer.
David Jackson, record breaker
But whilst London Welsh's victory is a wonderful underdog success story for the Championship, there is now something of a Goliath in the competition’s midst. Although they were Premiership champions in 1998, the Newcastle Falcons have been in decline for several seasons, a slump that culminated with their relegation from the Premiership last season. Despite this recent fall from grace they remain resounding favourites for an instant return. However, their decision to appoint Dean Richards as head coach, following the three-year ban the former England international served for his involvement in the now infamous 'bloodgate' scandal, has certainly turned some heads.
If Nottingham Rugby are to emulate the efforts of London Welsh, it is almost certainly the Newcastle Falcons with whom they will have to keep pace. But the Green and Whites have been through a summer of transition of their very own. Long serving head coach Glenn Delaney upped sticks and left to take up the role of forwards coach at London Irish in May, and was replaced by one time England international Martin Haag. The new man inherited a squad without last season's maverick performer Sione Kalamafoni, after the powerful Tongan signed a deal with Gloucester in March. Still, the ranks have been strengthened with the additions of former fans favourite Dan Montagu, who rejoins from Bristol, and exciting youngsters Rory Lynn and Tom Calladine.
Early signs have been encouraging too as Nottingham got off to the perfect start with a 34–29 opening day victory over Leeds Carnegie at Meadow Lane. Despite a sluggish opening period that saw the home side trail by seventeen points after just twenty minutes, Nottingham rallied and fought back magnificently. Two tries from Andrew Savage, scores from Michael Holford and Alex Shaw, all complimented by the ever reliable boot of James Arlidge gave the Green and Whites an impressive comeback win, their first in a season opener for seven years.
Mr Consistency, James Arlidge
The momentum that turnaround inspired was carried into the first away trip of the season, with Moseley providing the opposition as well as plenty of good omens for the visitors as the Green and Whites had not tasted defeat at Billesley Common in their previous six encounters. Such a run may have been weighing on the minds of the hosts when Nottingham's Joe Cobden, a late replacement for the injured Tim Streather, pounced on a misplaced Moseley pass to hand his side the lead with a superb breakaway try after just two minutes. Moseley responded with a try of their own through Glyn Hughes, who then gave his side the lead with a penalty. It would prove to be the first and last time Moseley held the advantage as Cobden's second try of the game, and a late score from the captain, Brent Wilson, following a fine team move, put the tie to bed (17–28) and secured the points for Nottingham.
The prospect of making it three wins out of three to start the season and keep pace with the Championship leaders proved to be a task too far for Haag's side, though, as the visiting Rotherham Titans brushed Nottingham aside with a comfortable 16–27 win at Meadow Lane. On the occasion of David Jackson's 267th appearance for the Green and Whites – making him the most capped league player in the club's history – Nottingham conspired to put in a disjointed and sloppy performance against a belligerent Rotherham defence. Jackson, captaining the side on his landmark outing, and his teammates were not helped by some controversial officiating, as the referee refused to award Arlidge's second half try on the grounds that the ball wasn't downed, effectively ending Nottingham's fightback before it had even begun.
Brent Wilson (left) and Tom Calladine, featured in the forthcoming issue of LeftLion
A week later a visit to the Bedford Blues completed the opening four fixtures of Nottingham's Championship campaign. Eager to bounce back from their loss to Rotherham, the Green and Whites welcomed back the experienced Matt Parr to the starting line up following a spell on the sidelines as a result of an eye injury, but the prop was unable to prevent his side going down 27–25 in a thrilling encounter. The defeat leaves Nottingham fifth in the table after four matches, with the Falcons, rather predictably, and Bedford leading the way.
The target for Nottingham this campaign will be to occupy fourth spot come the end of the season, a position that would be rewarded with a place in the playoffs, and a shot at following in the footsteps of London Welsh's triumph of last year. While a strong showing in the restructured British and Irish Cup is desirable, the league must be this season's priority and that playoff spot the goal. So far, despite two consecutive defeats, it appears to be one that with more hard work, a bit of luck and some friendlier officiating, the Green and Whites look very capable of achieving.
Images copyright Alison Bowden, courtesy of NRFC