Premiership Rugby Relegation analysed - What a difference 80 minutes makes.
For those advocates of professional division ring fencing, the events unfolding at the rear end of the inaugural Gallagher Premiership season are doing no favours to a movement that is gaining traction.
As CVC Partners continue to offer their undoubted mammoth financial backing to Europen rugby, one pre-requisite seems to exist if that funding is to grow further. Scrapping relegation, or at least as we know it, is a must. While the divide between the thirteen Premiership members and every other club making up the English rugby pyramid seems to be growing further, or at least maintaining the seismic gulf, concerned owners and fans alike question the necessity of relegation and whether it's worth the risk to the clubs embroiled in the scrap. Fairness and competitiveness remain the key objections, with the trials and tribulations of Newcastle Falcons, Worcester Warriors, Bristol Bears, and dare we say it, Leicester Tigers, keeping that fire alight.
After being many pundits’ favourites for the drop only a month ago the Falcons are showing signs of life, most noticibly within the defensive structure and power that suffocated Sale and Worcester. Proving their ability to come from behind of late and claim victory and a cruical run of form with the Tigers and the Bears both to come at home, the club's league status sits in deceivinly promising health considering their current place at the bottom of the table. With assured performances from returned 60-cap England standoff Toby Flood, the defensive organisation of Chris Harris in that oh-so cruical outside centre slot and the return of a certain Mark Wilson back from Six Nations stardom, it’s hard to understand how and why Newcastle ended up in their currently desperate situation. But, if current form continues, which there’s no suggestion it won’t, expect an almighty sigh of relief on the Tyne mid-May, the final fixture at home to Bristol. What a game that could be!
The side that kick-started the Falcons run of form, Worcester, are another team flaunting early Spring form, albeit are struggling to put it together week-to-week. The Warriors crucial victory at home to Leicester was followed by the lackluster defeat to Newcastle. Worcester’s strength is scoring points, the Warriors never seem to leave many out there. But it could also be there downfall, with a gung-ho approach often leading to skewed defensive lines leaking points. Whilst Newcastle have only managed a solitary try scoring bonus point, the difference between them and Worcester, the Warriors have to tighten up defensively. But the West Midlands side have suffered too many close shaves, a trait shared with latest opponents Bristol, shaves that may end up unfurling, at the cost of Premiership status. While double wictories over the Bears certainty eases the pressure, Francois Hougaard is a man that may well be the difference between where the Warriors play their rugby next season.
As Bristol trudged off at Ashton Gate, a realism of the tidal shift in their season’s aspirations was apparent. A bonus point victory would have seen the Bears join Northampton on forty-one points, and sat them proudly in a Champions Cup spot with five to go. Oh what a difference eighty minutes makes. A seven point gap separates Bristol and Newcastle, whilst that does still seem significant, the Falcons only need better Bristol once between now and the final day, and a defeat for the Bears at Kingston Park would likely see Bristol relegated in the most unlikely of circumstances. A shame it would be, Bristol prepared for life phenomenally well after promotion. The most able promoted team in the division for some time, marquee signings and a tantalizing style of play easy on the eye, relegation would certainly be a loss to the league.
Outstanding back to back wins over Gloucester and at Franklins Gardens are long forgotten, Bristol have two home games remaining, to top spot-chasing Saracens and top four-chasing Sale. More concerning, until that victory over Northampton in early March, Bristol have not won a single game on the road all season. Trips to Bath, Leicester and Newcastle look all the more daunting. With the likes of Luatua, Randall, Thacker and Morahan, both with six tries apiece this campaign, it’s within Bristol’s capability to pick up at least one more win - and a couple of bonus points along the way that should be enough to see them escape trouble.
That sad, no team is too good to go down. A lesson Leicester Tigers could soon be learning. Geordan Murphy would have felt comfortable knowing the safety net of his international stars returning would be enough to lift his side out of the mire he described following defeat to Northampton Friday gone. He would have been left sitting very uncomfortably after watching a side featuring Genge, Cole, Ford, May and Tuilagi contained at home to Northampton. A game that normally means so much for a semi final spot, had the same amount riding on it, but for a whole host of different reasons.
Despite George Ford standing as the current top point scorer in the league and Johnny May's spot as joint second in the scoring charts with nine, the Tigers look the most at risk out of all the teams scrapping at the bottom. Whilst the trio of combatants have all won two of their last three, the Tigers only have one victory, scraping past an out of sorts Wasps in the most controversial of circumstances. In possession of one victory in their last five, after a suggested renaissance back in late December and early January, the Tigers are sinking. Exeter up next for the side now boasting the coachins assitance of Mike Ford, followed by a Friday night showdown in Newcastle. Should the Falcons claim victory in that one, both sides could be on equal points heading into the final three fixtures, Bristol first, with Harlequins and Bath to round off a dismal season, whatever the outcome. Oh how old foes ‘Quins would like to send a timely reminder of too good to go down.
Unsettled stars, a big team that are too good to be relegated, open the history books to 2005 to see how that one ended up. Still a team with international stars and great history are too good to go down, right? Just ask Will Greenwood, Nick Easter and those at the Stoop how that one plays out.