01 October 2013

Time to climb out of the basement

There’s just one more round of domestic competition before the European break takes place. Next week it will be like a breath of fresh air to discuss Heineken Cup rugby rather than Heineken Cup politics. But before that happens the Pro 12, Aviva Premiership and Top 14 play one more game, which for some clubs will be a game of considerable significance.

It may seem a bit early in the season to discuss who will be contenders to finish at the top of their respective tournaments. After all we are less than a quarter of the way through the season. But unfortunately it is not too early to look at the teams that are contenders to finish in the basement of their league.

In the Pro 12, finishing at the bottom of the league, apart from disappointing the supporters and making life difficult for the coaches and players, is not catastrophic. No relegation from the tournament acts as somewhat of a comfort blanket for all involved.

Not so in the Aviva Premiership and Top 14, where relegation looms very large all to quickly for teams. The non-relegation from the Pro 12 has been somewhat of a bugbear for the Anglo/French clubs. Their logic is the threat of relegation brings constant pressure and with Heineken qualification also at stake, along with competing in the Heineken or Amlin, there is excessive stress on their squads.

A reasonable argument, but let’s not go there again until the next episode of what has become the “Heineken Soap Opera”.

But after next week’s domestic fixtures, some clubs will be faced with the spectre of spending the remainder of the season fighting to extricate themselves from the basement of their league.

The basement in the Pro 12 League table at this point contains five teams who are just another loss away, from a long tough slog for the remainder of the season. Cardiff on 6 points, Treviso and Zebre on 5 points and Connacht and Edinburgh on 4 points all face into very important games next weekend.

Zebre face the Dragons in Newport and another loss will certainly see them slip even further down the pecking order. The other four teams happen to play each other in what could be described as ‘eight-pointers’. Next Friday Treviso host Connacht. Whoever wins that tussle creates some breathing space for themselves. On Sunday, Edinburgh head to Cardiff. Again the winner of that game will immediately have a positive impact on where they stand on the league table. Those who lose pretty much condemn themselves into a basement battle for the foreseeable future.

In the Aviva Premiership things are not too dissimilar except Gloucester, London Irish, Newcastle and Worcester will already feel the cold chill of relegation on the back of their necks. With Gloucester and London Irish both on 5 points, Newcastle on 4 points and Worcester with 1 point, just one victory could have a very positive impact on everybody’s league position.

Gloucester face Exeter Chiefs, who are only two league places above them in 7th spot. A win for Gloucester could propel them above Exeter and possibly Wasps (8th place) and that would immediately take them out of the relegation zone.

London Irish will be hoping to avail of home advantage against Harlequins. It would seem a big ask for London Irish to turn over Harlequins who are five places above them in the league. But a win could propel them to a position right beside Harlequins in the table, so there’s a lot at stake in that game.

But there will be even more on the line at Sixways Stadium next Saturday when Worcester host Newcastle. A win for Worcester and bonus points aside they would join Newcastle on 5 points. But if Newcastle can dig out an away win they will cut Worcester adrift at the bottom of the table. This will automatically confirm Worcester as the lame duck of the championship and they will certainly don the mantle of “favourites for relegation” at this early stage of the season.

It is hard to believe but in France the Top 14 teams are heading onto their 9th round of the league before the Heineken begins. Unlike the Pro 12 and Aviva Premiership, the French play twenty-six regular season games. They started way back on August 16th and even played mid-week fixtures during the first week in September.

Apart from Biarritz, who are rooted to the bottom of the table with just 7 points after seven losses from their eight games, just 5 league points separates Bayonne in 13th spot from Racing Metro in 6th place. Remember a 6th place finish in the Top 14 gets you into the play-offs. In fact Stade Francais are top of the league with just 26 points, a mere 10 points ahead of Bayonne.

The narrow range of league points that separates teams in the Top 14 just goes to illustrate how competitive the league is. A few good results can catapult a team into the play-offs, while just as swiftly, a few bad results can plummet teams into relegation territory.

This often explains why French teams can be seen to pursue an almost “take it or leave it” attitude to the Heineken Cup. If they are struggling in the Top 14 they often prioritise their domestic league over the Heineken Cup pool games. That becomes even more likely if it looks like qualification for the Heineken play-offs is unlikely.

There is the possibility that, in anticipation of the Heineken Cup kicking-off the weekend after next, rugby supporters may pay scant attention to the upcoming results in the domestic leagues. But the coming weekend has significant ramifications for lots of teams.

Losing next weekend could condemn a team to spending the remainder of the season attempting to climb out of the basement of their league. Propping up the nether regions of the league would make life miserable for players, coaches and supporters over the next eight months.