Premiership Rugby Cup: English clubs prepare for new-look competition

Composite image of Exeter and Ealing lifting their cup trophies
Exeter and Ealing won the Premiership and Championship cup competitions last season

While many of the eyes of the rugby union community will be trained on France this weekend as the World Cup gets under way, in England something of a domestic revolution is about to take place.

The revamped Premiership Rugby Cup begins on Friday as top-flight sides take on teams from the second-tier Championship for the first time in competitive games for 18 years.

The 10 Premiership sides face trips to some of the dozen clubs in the second tier with Bath going to Cornish Pirates this weekend while Ampthill host Newcastle Falcons. Northampton face a trip to Championship Cup holders Ealing.

"To be go up against teams like Bristol Bears, Northampton this weekend, I think it's great for the players, the staff, the supporters and I think it's great for English rugby," Ealing director of rugby Ben Ward told BBC Radio London.

"We've lost a couple of sides recently, hopefully we're increasing the pool of players within the game."

The West London side have long held ambitions to make it to the top flight, although their ambitions have been held back by the lack of capacity at their home ground, despite the ambition of owner Mike Gooley to fund a squad with internationals including Jonah Holmes, Billy Twelvetrees and Lloyd Williams in their ranks.

"We love competing, so an opportunity to compete with some of the best teams in the country, we're really relishing that," Ward added.

"It's a great chance for our players to showcase what they're about and as a club we can measure where we're at, but hopefully we can really contribute to the competition and hopefully as a club we're contributing to English rugby."

Bringing in 'much-needed funds'

Jonah Holmes scores for Ealing
Wales back Jonah Holmes left Dragons for Ealing and is one of the Championship's star names

The event comes at a difficult time for the domestic game in England. Wasps, Worcester and London Irish have all disappeared after going into administration, while the top-flight's salary cap is down to £5m as the financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to ripple through the sport.

Meanwhile second-tier sides have seen their central funding from the Rugby Football Union cut from more than £500,000 in 2020 to just over £150,000.

So while it is a chance for a bigger showcase for the second-tier clubs, will the event make up for some of their shortfall?

"We've only got one home game against a Premiership team, so in that respect we are expecting a big crowd on Friday, we'll likely sell out to capacity which is great and brings in some much-needed funds," Cornish Pirates chief executive Rebecca Thomas told BBC Sport.

"But it's a one-off really, we haven't got a string of them unfortunately, so while it bolsters the income it certainly doesn't replace the funding that we used to have from the RFU, but we won't knock it.

"It's great that there is this product this season, it's been talked about now for a number of years, so for it to come to fruition is great.

"I think it's great for Championship teams to be in the spotlight. There's a handful of games that will be shown on TV, it's not quite everybody getting that spotlight, but at least its a Championship product out there.

"There is still a lot that needs to be done in terms of the support for the Championship and the product that it is and the development for players and the platform that it provides for that, because it is still massively overlooked," she added.

Preparations for the new league season

With the World Cup beginning, international stars from around the top flight will not be taking part at this stage.

In the past, Premiership sides have often used the cup competition's group stage as a test bed for younger players, and with the World Cup going on some may see it as a more competitive pre-season ahead of the Premiership's opening round in mid-October.

But Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter, whose side are the reigning Premiership Rugby Cup champions, says he will play all of his squad as he looks to rebuild after losing stars such as Jack Nowell, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Sam Simmonds and Dave Ewers over the summer.

"I said weeks ago in pre-season to the lads 'just to make sure true get your heads around things, pre-season for us is a development competition, but that means it's developing the Premiership team that's going to play round one against Saracens," he told BBC Sport.

"That doesn't mean if you're a senior player that perhaps traditionally thought you don't play that many Premiership Cup games because you're kept for the Premiership squad, that's gone.

"We're going to get decent game time into everybody who's going to play in the Premiership, it's not going to be anyone getting wrapped in cotton wool.

"I'm expecting a good amount of pre-season minutes into players and into combinations that we want to perform well in the Premiership, so we are using this to grow our side."

Teams will be split into two pools of six and two pools of five, with group games taking place every weekend until early next month.

The top side in each pool will make the semi-finals in early February before the final a month later.