Rotherham Titans v Richmond: Burnell's fear over semi-pro future of second tier

THE PRESSURE appears to be off but Rotherham Titans head coach Justin Burnell maintains it is more imperative than ever that his side deliver a rare win against Richmond today.

In it together: Jamie Tyas of Rotherham Titans is tackled by Glen Young of Doncaster Knights during the South Yorkshire rivals Championship fixture last month. Both clubs continue to fight against rising costs and slender income streams. Picture: steve riding

Earlier this week, the Championship fixture was being billed as potentially crucial for both sides in their fight to avoid relegation.

However, it was then announced on Wednesday there would be no demotion this term due to London Welsh’s expulsion from the league following the famous old club’s liquidation.

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That undoubtedly alleviated tension in South Yorkshire given Rotherham were just 11 points in front of bottom-placed Richmond in the drop spot.

Titans are looking to climb the table now and add to their meagre three wins – a fourth versus Welsh was expunged.

Yet Richmond cannot be taken lightly; they had remained clear favourites for relegation just 12 months after earning promotion but showed vast signs of improvement before Christmas, winning at London Scottish and Cornish Pirates while also pushing leaders London Irish close.

“They’re doing a fantastic job under Steve Hills, the head coach and director of rugby,” Burnell told The Yorkshire Post.

“They have really gelled a good bunch of players together. They’d targeted National One for a while, then won it and, like anyone else, took time to find their feet in the Championship. But they’ve definitely got themselves in touch for having a strong end to the season.

“It will be a really tough game on Saturday. They have some experienced players in there. Matt Corker was my captain when we won the Championship at London Welsh and now he is a big figure at Richmond.

“We’ll have a lot to catch up on on Saturday and we’ll have a chat afterwards. He’s very important to them but they’re all working hard under Steve Hills.

“We’ve missed out on some narrow results ourselves but as a group of players, management and directors we’re now looking for improvements. We’ve looked at it and everything is centred on us getting better, putting big foundations in place for next season. Nothing has changed just because there’s no relegation.”

With Welsh imploding following their financial mess and so many other Championship clubs struggling for income and ongoing issues with a lack of RFU funding, it has reopened the debate on whether the league is destined to soon turn semi-professional.

Richmond, who reside less than a mile from London Welsh’s Old Deer Park, have been running as a part-time operation all season but Burnell hopes the competition does not evolve in that way.

“It’s the interpretation of semi-pro’,” he said.

“If it means training for an hour on Tuesday and Thursday nights then no, I don’t think it should go in that direction.

“In the modern era, the professional player has to be an athlete; the days of two nights a week training have gone.

“There’s others who may take it to mean doing six training sessions a week but work as well and they could be earning a lot more money than they do in full-time rugby. But I think if the Championship is being deemed as the vehicle to underpin the Premiership, you’re not going to take players out of there who are only training two nights per week.

“Hartpury College will come up from National One next season. They’re classed as semi-pro but live on camp and train every single day; they might already be training a lot more than 80 per cent of other Championship sides and they are all full-time athletes.

“When you think of the number of players they have to choose from and then they have Gloucester on their doorstep, too, they’ll prove a massive challenge.”

Rotherham, of course, have utilised dual-registration deals with Premiership clubs this season to bolster their squad although their relationship with Gloucester floundered after the Kingsholm side asked for Titans to pay match fees for their players as well as expenses.

Burnell explained: “We were short of a fly-half when we played Doncaster in the B&I Cup last Saturday but Leicester gave us Ollie Bryant who will play this week in the LV Cup for them and we were very grateful.

“We gave him money for a tank of petrol and accommodation and everyone’s happy – the Premiership clubs are asking us to help them out, too, by giving them a game.

“We’re more than willing to do it and we’ve worked with Northampton, Gloucester, Newcastle and Leicester.

“But they can’t then have the current in the bun and ask us to also pay their wages which is what Gloucester essentially said.

“It’s bizarre. The ironic part of all that is we couldn’t afford the Gloucester players and I knew that. But the club that has now gone bust is the one that said it could afford them and took them on; if Rotherham couldn’t pay that, how did Welsh when they were already in liquidation?”

Rotherham have made six changes to the starting XV which lost narrowly to Doncaster Knights in the British & Irish Cup last weekend .

Four of the changes come in the pack with props Tom Williams and Joe Rees coming in.Toby Salmon and Tom Calladine are also back in the forwards.

Titans have brought in Lee Millar on loan from Hull Ionians and he starts at fly-half.