The Greene King IPA Championship is the second tier of English rugby. Comprised of 12 teams, it was launched in September 2009.
The mission statement of the Greene King IPA Championship is to help raise the profile, excitement and standard of the English game for fans and players alike.
‘Raising the Game’ is the championship’s strapline, which is a strategic statement of intent, as well as a blueprint for the league’s competitors.
The launch of the 2017-18 season saw the Rugby Football Union (RFU) renew its partnership with Greene King IPA for a further three seasons. The extension sees Greene King IPA retain its title partnership of the Greene King IPA Championship, cementing its position as a key supporter of rugby at all levels of the game.
The Greene King IPA Championship was restructured in 2009, when it took the name ‘Championship’, after previously being called ‘National Division One’, and reduced the number of teams in the competition from 16 to 12.
Leeds Tykes, now Yorkshire Carnegie, were the last team to be automatically promoted to the top flight because as well as a reduction of teams; there was also a change in the format of the competition.
From the 2009-10 season, the top eight teams would compete for one promotion play-off place by splitting into two groups of four, with the top two teams in each group going into a two-legged semi-final and subsequent final. Exeter Chiefs beat Bristol in this inaugural format.
There were further tweaks to the competition for the following season in 2010-11, where the higher a club finished before the play-off stage, the more points they started on. For example, the teams that finished first and second started on three points, to reward them for their regular season performances.
In 2011, Worcester Warriors were promoted back to the Aviva Premiership and then a year later London Welsh’s play-off triumph meant they would play top flight rugby for the first time in their history.
That format lasted for those two years before more changes to the play-off system, when it aligned with the Premiership, in that the top four teams would enter the play-offs and the bottom side would be automatically relegated. The only difference to the top flight system was that the semi-finals were played over two legs rather than one.
Newcastle Falcons spent one season in the Championship under this new system, losing just one game during the 2012-13 campaign under new director of rugby Dean Richards. That season was also significant as a Championship XV played a touring Maori All Blacks side at Castle Park in Doncaster which they lost 21-52.
The year after in 2014, London Welsh secured an immediate return to the Premiership when they beat Bristol over two legs, in the first season when the competition became known as the Greene King IPA Championship on a deal for the next four years.
In 2015, West Country side Bristol would miss out again, this time to Worcester Warriors, in arguably the most dramatic game of the play-off format since the formation of the idea.
The Warriors led 29-28 from the first leg at Ashton Gate and then were 30-16 down in the closing stages in the return match. However, a late Chris Pennell try was converted by Ryan Lamb, making it 30-30 on the night at Sixways and a 59-58 win on aggregate for Worcester.
After finishing top in five of the seven seasons since the introduction of the new format, including three losses in the play-off final, Bristol finally returned to the top flight in 2016 when they overcame Doncaster Knights, while in 2016-17 London Irish secured an immediate return to the Premiership as they beat Yorkshire Carnegie 84-66 over the two final legs, the highest ever points tally between two teams in the final.
That would be the final year of the play-off system as the 2017-18 campaign returned to outright top of the league team automatically gaining promotion to the Aviva Premiership, as Greene King IPA committed for a further three years of sponsorship to the competition.
Bristol were the benefactors of this system last season, as they won 22 of their 21 games, scoring 949 points en route back to the Premiership. London Irish were relegated from the top flight, and will ply their trade in the Championship again for the 2018/19 season.
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