"Taking on the Top Flight" - Jersey Reds' Journey Into the Premiership Rugby Cup - Ruck

“Taking on the Top Flight” – Jersey Reds’ Journey Into the Premiership Rugby Cup

Jersey Reds are riding a wave of momentum, that is washing up repeated success to the Channel Island shores. After winning the 2023 RFU Championship in dramatic fashion at the end of last season, the Reds have continued in their stride for the opening two rounds of action in the 2023/24 Premiership Rugby Cup.

Jersey are one of 12 sides from the RFU Championship that are competing against the Premiership clubs, in the re-structured competition. The Premiership Rugby Club used to just feature the sides in the English top flight, yet after the collapses of Worcester Warriors, Wasps and London Irish, we have seen the competition expanded into a new-look format.

The competition’s expansion was rumoured before the trio of Premiership sides entered administration, but the resulting tournament looks like an efficient system to keep the competition alive and kicking. The Premiership Rugby Cup became a platform for the Premiership clubs to introduce their academy breakthroughs or give fringe players the opportunities to impress. The tournament has an all-new feel to it now, with Jersey amongst the Championship sides that want to upset the favourites from the top division.

The competition’s new format sees the 22 teams divided up into four pools, with Jersey seeded into the South regional Pool C, alongside Bath Rugby, London Scottish, Cornish Pirates and the reigning Premiership Rugby Cup champions Exeter Chiefs. Jersey will also take on their high-flying Championship rivals Ealing Trailfinders from Pool D, with the crossover coming due to Pool’s C and D only featuring five sides.

Jersey hit top gear in their pre-season, with a staggering 7-50 away thrashing of Richmond. The South West London side had recently been relegated from the RFU Championship, with Jersey presenting the gulf in class by running in eight tries to wrap up their Summer. Jersey then returned to the Richmond Athletic Ground the following week, to open their Premiership Rugby Cup campaign against London Scottish.

Jersey have taken to the competition in fine form, with their opening round fixture bringing a 43-0 away win against the Exiles. The Reds arrived full of fire after their 2023 Championship winning campaign, and followed up on their back-to-back victories over Scottish from the previous season. Jersey crossed over for seven tries in the one-way shut-out, as James Hadfield grabbed a brace amongst the scoring.

Despite bringing the RFU Championship crown to the Channel Islands, Jersey were not promoted into the Premiership as they did not meet the league’s criteria on facilities. The Reds used this blow as motivation for the second match in the Premiership Rugby Cup, as they had their first opportunity in 18 years to take on a side from the English top flight in a competitive fixture.

“It’s a huge game for the island and the community,” Jersey Head Coach Rob Webber said to BBC Sport ahead of the historic match.

“I think the whole competition is a fantastic idea and I hope it proves to be a success, I think it’s been a revelation.”

“We’re under no illusions as to how tough it’s going to be and we’re trying to lean into that and understand that and embrace it,” he told BBC Radio Jersey.

“It’s about going there and making sure we understand the challenge that’s going to come our way, but also not just worry about them.

“We’re also a good team and we want to go there and play our brand of rugby and entertain our supporters and put a good performance in.”

Webber’s side certainly performed to his expectations, as they made good on their trip to the Recreation Ground. Jersey put in an inspired performance to record a 34-10 win, and achieve a history-making win in Somerset. Despite the chosen kit colours, this bruising encounter left Bath black and blue, as a fired-up Jersey side brought a fierce fight to their hosts.

Although the likes of veteran winger Will Muir returned to the Rec from injury, Bath could not cope with the relentless Reds’ attack. Hooker James Hadfield again scored twice in the Premiership Cup, with his brace contributing key second half scores against Bath.

Hadfield presented no love-lost for the Somerset club, despite previously being a on the club’s radar whilst studying at the University of Bath. The hosts took a 10-5 lead into half-time, thanks to the try-scoring efforts of promising fly-half Sam Harris and returning first team flyer Muir. Jersey’s first try at the Rec came from second row James Scott, with neither side adding the extras off the tee in the first 40 minutes.

Jersey soon took control of the match, and landed Bath in hot water with five unanswered second half tries. Centre Alex McHenry crossed over after 50 minutes, before his midfield partner Jordan Holgate added his own score just four minutes later. Halfback Russell Bennett scored the pick of the bunch, in-between Hadfield’s duo of tries, as Jersey ran away with the contest and ensured a famous win for the Channel Islands.

Speaking to BBC Jersey after the match, Reds Director of Rugby Harvey Biljon said:

“That’s a great advert for Championship rugby being able to step up as champions last season, come away to the Rec and put on a performance like that and get a result, that’s the bit that I’m really proud of.

“There was confidence, but added to that confidence was a little bit of anxiety too, the unknown.

“Everything was a little bit different, we had the TV cameras, we had 7,500 people here, and that’s probably not what the guys have every weekend.

“To come here and have to arm wrestle our way through before it eventually broke and we got our opportunity to go and take scores, you look at that first half and we were putting them under pressure but getting turned over, we had a couple of line breaks but didn’t quite finish.

“It shows as we grew in the game that it shows that the players had the confidence to go out and execute and get those scores.

“It shows the balance we had both up front with the forwards, with our backs and also that awareness on pitch to take advantage of opportunity.”

Jersey will now host Exeter Chiefs on Saturday 23rd September, as the men from Devon fly over for their Pool C fixture in Saint Peter. The Reds will then battle it out with Cornish Pirates and Ealing Trailfinders, to wrap up the Premiership Rugby Cup pool stages ahead of the new RFU Championship season.

The Reds’ opening fixture of the 2023/24 campaign sees them host Coventry on Saturday 21st October. Jersey ended their last Championship season on top, and look to re-claim their crown for an unprecedented back-to-back title retention.

The Reds won the title in breath-taking style, after trailing Ealing for the duration of the 2022/23 campaign. However, a penultimate round 19-13 victory over the Trailfinders edged Jersey into top spot, before the Reds secured the title with a 43-15 win over Ampthill.

This was Jersey’s first ever RFU Championship title, with the triumph heralded as an almighty achievement in the club’s 144 year history.