The battle at the basement of the Aviva Premiership has proved to be an extremely compelling spectacle over the past couple of months. Newcastle and Wasps, two proud clubs steeped in top-flight tradition and trophies, have put grim campaigns behind them to fight gamely against the gruesome prospect of relegation.
A fantastic 29-20 win for the Falcons over Gloucester at Kingsholm last month, followed by an immensely brave 9-3 defeat to champions Saracens the next weekend, was exacting evidence of how highly rugby is valued in the north-east. Defying off-field wrangles of the most distracting order, Dai Young’s men have also bared considerable mettle. Tom Varndell’s phenomenal try-line hijack of Sam Vesty that salvaged a precious losing bonus-point a fortnight ago against Bath will forever be the epitome of selfless industry. Crucially, haring down to embarrass his former Leicester teammate, the winger also made his side favourites to prevail from last Saturday’s showdown – a winner-take-all affair. Well, one with loopholes galore.
On the face of it, two desperate sides arrived in Wycombe occupying the final two spots on the league ladder with relatively straightforward permutations in place. Unless Newcastle scored four tries and won by 24 points, they were down. Ultimately, such a task proved beyond them. However, a 14-10 victory did prove that there are reasons to be optimistic. Besides anything else – the imminent arrival of Dean Richards and long-term contracts for Jimmy Gopperth and Rob Vickers, for example – they are not relegated quite yet.
Thanks to RFU venue regulations established in 2005, only Bristol of the four sides in the Championship play-offs, thanks to their 12,000-capacity Memorial Ground base, are certain achieve promotion upon prevailing over a two-legged final at the end of May. London Welsh would need an unlikely ground-share operation with Brentford Football Club to be realised. Cornish Pirates and Beford Blues, both eminently capable of emerging triumphant, have not even applied for an audit.
Such details have been ushered into the background, understandably. A crowd of Adams Park 10,516 would not have been nearly as tense in the knowledge that either side – Wasps realistically fighting for their financial future – would only have a 25% chance of being condemned to the drop.
In the event, that (hastily drawn-up) percentage now looks even slimmer. Riding on a raucous wave of home support, the Cornish Pirates made a massive dent in Bristol’s Premiership credentials, romping to a 45-24 win in their semi-final first-leg on Bank Holiday Monday. Full-back Rob Cook kicked 25 points, Gavin Cattle marshalled things brilliantly from scrum-half and a back row of Phil Burgess, Ben Maidment and Chris Morgan wreaked havoc.
All of these players, as well as England Under 20 centre Sam Hill, would be fine in top-tier rugby. Galvanised by the south-west passion that is serving Exeter Chiefs so well, they could grow to be a significant force. Unfortunately, we may never know. At least not yet.
Watching events unfold from Mennaye Field – probably along with just about every Geordie egg-chaser – it was hard not to feel sorry for the visitors, who were exceptional in the regular season and finished seven points clear of the rest of the field. Now, Bristol have an imposing mountain to climb. Unfortunately, that defines the perverse scenario we are left with.
In the money-spinning chaos of domestic English rugby, logic has officially left town. Finishing last is not enough to guarantee relegation and finishing first will not assure promotion. Because professional rugby is in its adolescence, these awkward situations will keep being churned up – whether we like to admit it or not.
The Championship, a fantastic league, is designed to make sure that its winner is ready for the tumult of the Aviva Premiership. This arduous process of natural selection, including two different sets of play-offs, has case studies to prove its efficiency. Worcester Warriors have been very good this year under the meticulous guidance of Richard Hill. Exeter nearly turned over Stade Francais too, for goodness sake.
With all that in mind, it is a shame that Newcastle can yet be saved. It would be fascinating for Cornish Pirates or Bedford to be given a go at taming Leicester Tigers or standing up to Saracens. For now, they can build, using the notion of those encounters as motivation. Hopefully, this farcical situation passes with time.