Ambitious Bury St Edmunds will turn semi-professional next season as they bid to cement their place in the top four tiers of English rugby.
The Suffolk club stormed to the top of the fifth tier by downing National Three London and South East leaders London Irish Wild Geese to take Irish’s place at the summit in front of a bumper crowd at The Haberden on Saturday.
Bury’s eight-game title run-in begins at struggling CS Rugby 1863 tomorrow (2.30pm), but the club’s executive committee — in only their second season in national rugby — conceded they must take the major step of paying their approximately 30-man squad if they are to sustain their rise through the ranks.
“Our view, after much soul searching, is that if we are to go forward or even maintain this level then we have no option,” said club chairman Mike Robinson. “If we don’t go down that route we will start to slide backwards.
“In an ideal world you wouldn’t want to do it, but you have got to face reality sometimes and accept this is the way the world has gone.”
Several clubs in Bury’s current league and reportedly every side in the level above are paying their full squad — one at their current level with a playing budget of allegedly more than £100,000 per season.
Robinson said Bury’s projected budget would be ‘significantly lower’ than that six-figure sum and would be funded by sponsors through a separate company that has been set up specifically for the purpose of handling payments, as well as tax and National Insurance contributions where relevant.
This will be separate to the amateur club, ensuring they do not fund the move and will continue to operate as usual.
Several local businesses have already registered an interest in contributing to the playing budget and the club’s job for the coming weeks is to secure that money in place while recruiting new faces for next season.
However, Robinson is keen to ensure the club do not go down the route of bringing in mercenaries who turn up for training and matches without making any other contribution to the club.
Players — whose ‘modest cash incentive’ will be linked into appearances at matches and training sessions — will be expected to assist with coaching Bury’s flourishing mini and junior sections.
“It is important they make a contribution,” said Robinson. “Particularly if they are getting something for it.
“It’s about making sure these high standard players put something back into the club so everyone benefits from it.
“We are trying to make sure we remain very much a community club and it’s not just about the first team.
“We want to move everyone forward from the under-sixes right through to the first team in an inclusive way.”
The decision to step up to semi-professional status was made after ‘much consideration’, but it was not one that was taken lightly.
“Any new step is daunting, but you have to embrace
that if you have aspirations and ambitions,” said Robinson. “If we are serious about progressing as a club, retaining our best young players and attracting others, then this is a step we must now take.
“It all comes down to having an element of control over our players, due to the commitment they need to make.”
n Bury St Edmunds Wolves — the club’s third string — retained their place at the top of Greene King IPA Eastern Counties League Division Two West with a 26-5 victory over March Bears.
With Matt Bell leading from the front and Graham Bowie settled in to his new position of number eight, Stuart Turner scored a hat-trick of tries.
Patrick Turner added two conversions and secured a bonus point with the fourth try.
n Bury St Edmunds Under-15s drew 22-22 with Ipswich YM in their latest Suffolk Cup fixture on Sunday.
Elliot Rayment (two), Tom Paren and Levi Roper touched down.