Finally – time to draw breath. After 22 pulsating weeks of Championship rugby culminating in a mad dash for those unfortunate clubs having to fulfill postponed fixtures, last Saturday was a welcome week off.
But not welcome for all, of course. John Taylor, managing director of London Welsh, was quoted in The Rugby Paper: “…I’m sitting here at the Old Deer Park, having had wonderful weather, with the pitch in good condition, and we’ve got a blank Saturday. I’d rather have played Doncaster this weekend than 10 days ago when it was sandwiched between weekend games”.
The Exiles were one of four clubs coerced into midweek involvement by the RFU’s intransigent regulations, which left them having to play three games in six days. Worse still for Doncaster Knights; they had to turn out four times within nine days.
The RFU claim that the recent free Saturday was at the request of the Championship clubs who wanted a fortnight to prepare for and promote their play-off fixtures. This seems unlikely as most of the Championship clubs, and the Rugby Players’ Association, consider that the workload for the players, with the existing dictum is unacceptable. There is a groundswell of opinion that the RFU’s insistence on concluding Stage One by the last Saturday in February should be relaxed next season.
However, whilst this change may be adopted, it now seems unlikely that the format of the Championship will be significantly altered for the new term, although negotiations are still in progress.
The current structure had its detractors when it began back in 2009. Moseley prop Nathan Williams said in the Birmingham Sunday Mercury in February 2010: “I am all for play-offs to win a championship, like the top four play off in the Premiership. But I don’t like to think of a relegation place being decided that way. You could win nearly half your fixtures and still go down – that’s a very harsh reality.”
The other concern was that it allowed little time for clubs to recruit strengthened squads for the coming season. “I don’t think it’s a very good system because you are talking another six weeks before you can even begin planning for the following season,” Williams added.
But three years on, most clubs and players are keen to maintain the current format. While many clubs throughout the country have nothing to play for at this stage of the season, all 12 Championship teams can still define their own destiny – either up or down. Not only that, having a three-stage competition has allowed and even encouraged clubs to rotate their squads. Most players contracted to Championship outfits have played at least 10 matches, whereas in a league without play-offs, the pressure for results would mean that many squad members would hardly have played at all. This, according to Cornish Pirates head coach Chris Stirling, helps with player development and is a real positive of the current structure.
The recruitment drive has begun already, and last week Bristol coach Liam Middleton announced that he had added Leicester scrum-half James Grindal, 31, to his squad for next season.
So where do we go from here? Stage Two of the play-offs begins on Saturday and concludes on 21st April by which time we will know who will go through to the two-legged semi-finals, and perhaps on to a two-legged final, and who will be packing their bags and heading for National League One.
The top eight clubs have been divided into two pools: 1st, 4th, 5th and 8th – Bristol, London Welsh, Nottingham and Doncaster – comprise Play-off Group A, while 2nd 3rd, 6th and 7th – Bedford, Cornish Pirates, Leeds and Rotherham – are in Group B.
Bristol and Bedford, who finished in first and second slot, start the play-off on three points. The Pirates and the Welsh, who ended Stage One in third and fourth place, start on two points. The fifth and sixth placed clubs – Nottingham and Leeds – start on one, while Doncaster and Rotherham start on none.
At the bottom, the four clubs fighting for survival – London Scottish, Moseley, Plymouth and Esher will carry over 1 point for each win in the regular season.
Surprisingly, all but Esher finished Stage One with a creditable six wins, while the rapidly improving Londoners – the division’s whipping boys before the turn of the year – managed four wins. This only adds to the excitement, as Stage Two commences for pool C with an almost level playing field to which, I would confidently predict, Esher will soon apply their spirit level when they entertain London Scottish on Saturday.
This division is too tight to call – at both ends. However, it would be harder to bet against Bristol than the pre-season favourites Leeds whose young side has been woefully inconsistent. Pirates’ supremo, Chris Stirling, is under-playing his side’s chances of Premiership rugby; but if they can better Bedford on at least one occasion they should progress to at least the semis.
And at the bottom? I’m going to do something that fledgling rugby reporters should never, ever do and make a prediction, albeit a little one – Esher will avoid the drop.
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