Nine games in, and the mid-point of the season fast approaching, and only five points separate the bottom six teams in the Premiership: from Bath in sixth on 19 points to Newcastle Falcons in 12th on 15. Between them lie Bristol Bears, Leicester Tigers, Worcester Warriors, Northampton Saints and Sale Sharks.
The pace-setters of Saracens and Exeter Chiefs are way out ahead – in fact, Gloucester in third are closer to Newcastle at the bottom than Saracens at the top.
By my reckoning, this is the most open relegation battle in the past decade, and one of the traditional ‘big’ sides, such as Leicester, Northampton and Bath, could be in very real danger of being drawn into a relegation dogfight in the second half of the season.
You have to go back to 2007 for the last time a traditional heavyweight team was relegated, when Northampton Saints went down. Harlequins had also gone down just two years before. Since then we have seen a regular cohort of ‘fringe’ sides, Leeds, Bristol, Worcester, London Welsh and London Irish all relegated twice each, and Newcastle once.
But those usual suspects for the drop have been in good form recently, Worcester and Bristol steadily picking up wins, and the Bears going as far as to thrash Leicester by a shocking 41-10 scoreline on Saturday, a result Tigers’ head coach Geordan Murphy called ‘embarrassing’.
Leicester are in probably in the worst form of the big names. They look rudderless after the complete farce that was sacking your coach one game into the season. They have no backs coach to help acting head-coach Geordan Murphy with the attack, and their defence is actually quite shocking… they have conceded 292 points so far this season. That works out at an average of 32 points a game. They sit on -72 points difference, the worst in the league. And they now face a double-header against last year’s European finalists Racing 92 over the next two weekends. Hardly ideal.
While Bath were not as shambolic as Leicester at the weekend, they are hardly flying, needing Joe Cokanasiga to rescue a home game against Sale for a 7-7 draw. They lost to Newcastle 16-8 in the previous game – that’s 15 points total scored in games against the bottom two sides; they look distinctly uninspiring in attack.
Like Leicester, they now face back-to-back games against tough European opposition, although in their case the reigning European champions Leinster. Probably the single worst opposition to try and reboot a flagging campaign against.
Saints are the other big name at risk of being drawn into a scrap at the bottom – like Bath, they just struggled in games against the bottom two of Sale and Newcastle, losing both. While the Saints general form seems to have improved slightly on their poor 2017-18 season, it has not improved enough – especially with no clear favourite for relegation, such as London Irish last year, to make the process almost a formality. However, at least they now face games against the Dragons and Timisoara Saracens in the Challenge Cup, and no disrespect to either, but that is a much easier set of fixtures than Racing or Leinster.
In contrast, and alongside Bristol and Worcester, the league’s bottom team Newcastle seem to be finding some form. They had a tough opening run of games, playing Saracens, Exeter and Wasps in their first five matches, but have bounced back with wins in Europe over Toulon and Montpellier in October, before beating Bath and the ‘robbery’ at Northampton Saints this weekend – Mark Wilson touching down against the post in the 86th minute.
Newcastle are maybe an example of why I shouldn’t be writing off Bath and Leicester’s chances just yet. If either were to claim a huge scalp in Europe it could certainly be the much-needed shot in the arm. However, Newcastle never quite looked a million miles away from finding some form; unlike Leicester, who I have never seen so bereft of ideas.
Then there is Sale. They are also not in the greatest of form; they have some star players scattered throughout, but unusually look like they are lacking cohesion. The reason I have not spoken about them as much is because they do not carry the weight of such expectation from the supporters – usually pitching around the mid to lower table. In contrast, Bath, Leicester and Saints’ fans expect their team to be in the mix for the playoffs, despite comparatively barren years recently for all.
Could we really see one of the big sides go down? The likes of Manu Tuilagi, George Ford and Johnny May; or Courtney Lawes and Dan Biggar; or Sam Underhill, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson playing in the Championship? The more likely situation is a mass exodus of those with international aspirations.
Of course, any involvement of a side of the stature of Leicester, Northampton or Bath in a relegation fight will likely open up the debate again around ringfencing the Premiership. However, the RFU’s interim CEO Nigel Melville has already moved to confirm that nothing will change this season. I welcome this – relegation and promotion is part of what makes the English club system great.
There is still a lot of rugby to be played and you would expect a team with star-names of the calibre of Saints, Tigers or Bath’s squads to pull through, while a team like Worcester or Sale perhaps begin to fade. But it won’t magically happen. Tiger’s in particular need to make some tough decisions and shake things up behind the scenes.
And of course, the bigger teams will lose more players to the international periods… It looks like we may be very tight come May.
Who do you think will be fighting it out to avoid relegation?
By Henry Ker