Jersey Reds: What next when you've hit rugby's glass ceiling?

Jersey Reds: What next when you've hit rugby's glass ceiling?
Jersey Reds pipped Ealing to the 2022-23 Championship title - photo credit Sue Armes

Jersey Reds have made progress a habit. Year-on-year, for the past decade and a half, they've climbed the tables, ultimately reaching the summit of the Championship to ignite wild celebrations at the Stade.

Jersey propelled themselves into the second tier of English rugby in 2012, after a series of four promotions in just five years. The climb through the league pyramid was sharp, the improvement once in the Championship steadier but clear to see. Seventh place in 2015. Sixth in 2016. Fifth in 2017 and 2018. Fourth in 2019 and 2022. Title winners in 2023.

But with the door to the Premiership bizarrely closed to the Championship champions, because of the size of their stadium, how do they keep the progress graph trending upwards when promotion is prevented? When you bump your head abruptly on the glass ceiling, where and what next?

The Premiership is perhaps, in reality, not a members' club they really want to be part of right now anyway. Three topflight clubs have fallen by the wayside in the past 12 months for financial reasons. Maybe the Reds are better off out of it, better to be on the waiting list, rather than up there amidst the mayhem.

Jersey were playing in London South West Division Three in 2005, but are now knocking on the Premiership door

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An unbeaten "invincibles" campaign would do it. Win every game this time around? Look for more Ws than last season. A league and cup double may be out of reach with Premiership sides in this year's cup competition. Simply playing better rugby is unlikely to be enough for the casual supporter who just turns up for "the big ones". Scoring more points, conceding fewer at the other end?

Looking across the water to play in France could be an extreme move for down the line. If the Premiership fencing is impenetrable, if you can't reach the top level in one country, maybe another might be more accommodating of ambition.

In reality, retaining the Championship title would be a superb feat and is likely to be the main aim. Show it wasn't a one-off. But for the fans it would, in all probability, not match the thrill of lifting the trophy for the first time.

As the players return to pre-season training at St Peter over the coming days, and set their targets, there'll be more than half a dozen new faces in the group.  The likes of departing TJ Harris, Will Brown and Tomi Lewis will take some replacing. Director of Rugby, Harvey Biljon, has looked to strengthen his squad though, ready to go again in his testimonial year and somehow build on the achievements of the class of 2022-23.

Thom Smith in action for Doncaster Knights
Former Leicester Tigers forward Thom Smith joins the Reds from Doncaster Knights

Bristol Bears lock John Hawkins, former Scarlets and Llandovery hooker Dafydd Hughes, ex Wales U20 international Joe Peard, Connacht flanker Ciaran Booth and Doncaster Knights back row Thom Smith are the new forwards joining the Championship champions for the title defence.

"The fact that Thom captained both Leicester Tigers and Doncaster shows how highly-rated he is – he is someone who conducts himself really well and is clearly excited about making the move to Jersey Reds and being part of the journey we are on," said Biljon.

"John [Hawkins] hasn’t had a huge amount of game-time at Bristol and I believe this move offers him the chance to really kick on and do well here. He’s an intelligent player and I think will enjoy his new surroundings in Jersey."

25-year-old ex Connacht wing Peter Sullivan will add options in the backs, as will Robin Wedlake who makes the switch from Penzance to St Peter after five prolific seasons with Cornish Pirates.

Robin Wedlake runs with ball
Robin Wedlake made around 80 appearances for Cornish Pirates - photo credit Brian Tempest

Biljon added: "This is a big move for Robin which provides him with the perfect opportunity to hit the re-set button and take on a new challenge. He’s been a stand-out performer in the Championship and we’re really excited to see what he can bring."

And that may well be the key - exciting the supporters, getting them coming back for more. When the fixtures come out there'll be no Jersey Reds trips to Sandy Park or Welford Road to look for, there'll be no league clash with Saracens or Sale at the Stade. So, it'll be intriguing to see how Biljon's men can find a way to capture the imagination of the island again. For a club addicted to progress, don't be surprised if they find a way.

Jersey Reds squad for 2023-24, as at 18 June 2023

Sam Grahamslaw, Stevie Longwell, Greg McGrath, Adam Nicol, Huw Owen, Monty Weatherby, Eoghan Clarke, Harry Doolan, James Hadfield, Dafydd Hughes, John Hawkins, Sean O’Connor, Joe Peard, James Scott, Max Argyle, Ciaran Booth, Hal Chapman, Tim Grey, Alun Lawrence, Thom Smith, Lewis Wynne, James Elliott, James Mitchell, Toby Venner, Russell Bennett, Ben Burnell, Dan Barnes, Jordan Holgate, Alex McHenry, Charlie Powell, Brendan Owen, Peter Sullivan, Scott Van Breda, Robin Wedlake and Ben Woollett.