Rugby clubs win nothing in pre-season, of course, but Ealing Trailfinders could not be in much better shape as they prepare for the condensed English Championship season.
The ambitious club put its rivals on notice during the recent Trailfinders Challenge Cup with back-to-back victories over five-time Premiership champions Saracens.
Relegated Saracens should provide the biggest obstacle to Ealing’s hopes of promotion to England’s top-flight this year, but a team featuring Billy Vunipola was beaten 27-26 at Vallis Way on 16 January. Three weeks later, Ealing travelled to north London and increased their margin of victory, winning 39-26.
Director of rugby, Ben Ward has cautioned against getting carried away, but while Saracens were missing several first-team players, they were able to call on Rugby World Cup-winner Vincent Koch as well as internationals Aled Davies, Duncan Taylor and Will Hooley in both matches.
“The first victory gave us some confidence, and I think we started slow in that game,” Ward told World Rugby.
“The second game, for me, was more impressive, because we conceded early in each half, and we also had a number of injuries so we had to make a number of changes compared to the first game.
“But the guys, our players were fantastic and carried out a really good game plan against a fantastic side and organisation that set the benchmark for English rugby for the last couple of years.”
Trusting in the process
Ward has been at Ealing since 2004, when he joined the club as a young fly-half fresh out of St Mary’s University in nearby Twickenham.
He became director of rugby in 2014 and is keen for the club to continue to build in “the right way”. Ward doesn’t deny, though, that his and Ealing’s ultimate ambition is to bring Premiership rugby to this corner of west London.
“We're under no illusions about how good [Saracens] are, and when they're at full strength, they'll be a completely different animal,” he said.
“But as a club, we're confident in what we're doing, the journey that we're on, and that the process we have in place every week to beat each side is a good one.”
Ward added: “We we want to win every game that we play. So, if we win every game we play, we will achieve promotion. So, I think as a club, everybody knows our ambitions and where we want to be.
“But, I think if we start looking too far ahead, then, one, I think it's quite disrespectful to maybe some of the other sides in our league. But, also every other side in our league, you will get beaten by if you start looking too far ahead.
“So, it's important that we go game to game, where we take each challenge as it comes and let's see where that takes us.”
Trusting in that process has certainly paid dividends for Ealing since millionaire owner Mike Gooley first got involved with the club, as a sponsor, in 1999.
When Ward arrived at Vallis Way the club were playing in London Division Two North, but had just turned semi-professional and had ambitions to become a National League side.
Two promotions in three years followed to make that dream a reality, and as the progress continued the club earned their place in the Championship in 2013.
“Every year we got promotion, it was almost ‘go up to that next league and see where you're at’. Then the following year, it was ‘right, we know what we need to do to get that next promotion’.
“The big difference was when we went up to the Championship, that was then moving into a professional league.”
Ealing’s maiden season in the Championship ended in relegation, but having taken on director of rugby duties from Mike Cudmore, Ward led the team back up at the first time of asking.
Since then the club has progressed on and off the pitch, finishing second in each of the previous three seasons while building the infrastructure that could help it make that next step up.
“This is the hardest area that we've ever had to build from,” Ward said. “Lower down the leagues, you make a small change and it makes a big difference.
“Where we are now, you can make a big change and it only makes a small percentage difference.”
NEWS:— Ealing Trailfinders (@ealingtfrugby) February 15, 2021
We are delighted to announce that former England players Kat Merchant and Kim Oliver have been appointed as the two coaches to manage the Ealing Trailfinders women’s academies at Brunel University and Henley College.https://t.co/9rJcHLaujL pic.twitter.com/EEPMm4TCB8
Investing in the future
The club has invested heavily in its academy set-up in recent years, and has partnered with Brunel University to offer a pathway that combines education with rugby from under-16s up to the senior academy level.
“[Ward] pitched to me that he wanted the best academy in the country, if not the world,” head of recruitment, Alex Shaw said.
“One of the big challenges at the moment is that the profile of the Championship, as a professional league, in this country is not too high.
“So, you've got a lot of very talented rugby kids at schools who view professional rugby as the Premiership or bust. And, if they're not going to make it at that Premiership level, they don't really, I think, have that comprehensive knowledge of the other opportunities that are out there for them.
“So, I think a lot of it is that argument [of] saying, ‘Well, actually, when you look at what we invest, when you look at our facilities, our infrastructure, actually we can offer you something every bit as appealing as those Premiership clubs can’.”
That investment has extended to the women’s game. Earlier this year, Ealing teamed up with Henley College to announce a scholarship fund for aspiring female players aged between 16 and 18 as part of the Girls’ Elite Rugby Programme, which will begin in September.
In February, meanwhile, it was confirmed that former England players Kim Oliver and Kat Merchant had been recruited to manage the club’s women’s academies at Brunel University and Henley College.
“I like to think we'll be very integrated,” Ward said. “It’s the start of our journey in that aspect and we're going to build it up correctly from our Henley programme to our university programme, through our academy.
“So, we're incredibly excited about the two coaches coming on board, Kat and Kim, and incredibly excited about having not just a very good men's programme, but a really good women's programme as well.”
But, where does Ward see Ealing in five to 10 years’ time? “I would very much like to see us as a club with an incredible, thriving community programme,” he said.
“Male and female programmes that are heavily integrated, [an] academy that's producing players for our first-team, and dare I say it, male and women's programmes playing at the highest level possible in English rugby.”