Over the next two weekends, Bristol and Worcester will be on tenterhooks as the two Championship big guns strive to negotiate the play-off semi-finals…
THE HACKLES are up, the tension unmistakable. After the long grind of a 22-match league programme, the Greene King IPA Championship reaches the play-off stage this weekend and the question on most people’s lips is: who will go up – Bristol or Worcester?
It’s a natural enough assumption, the two sides having finished first and second by a country mile and now approaching the semi-finals as the hottest of favourites to progress to a Premiership-chasing shootout. Bristol (103 points) host Rotherham (61) in Saturday’s first leg, while Worcester (97) visit London Scottish (64).
Yet the play-offs are a perilous business, as Worcester’s Charlie Mulchrone makes all too clear. Last year he captained Rotherham as they pushed Bristol close in both legs and the scrum-half says: “No one expected Rotherham to be anywhere near promotion so we had nothing to lose and could just give it a crack.
“Now (at Worcester) we’re expected to be one or two in the league and that is more pressure, but then there’s pressure on everyone because it’s knockout rugby and one bad day and your season is over.”
One dinner at a time
The Warriors have kept bad days to a minimum this season, losing both meetings with Bristol narrowly (23-19 and 30-26) and seeing a 24-match winning run halted by Aaron Penberthy’s late drop-goal for Jersey in March.
You might suppose Bristol would gain a psychological edge from those wins, but put that to Mulchrone and you get short shrift.
“Mate, I’ve not even thought of that possibility (playing Bristol in the final) so I don’t want to give you an ill-advised response. Irrespective of who you’re playing, your only concern is the next match. I haven’t even thought about what I’m having for dinner tonight.
“Everyone gives you a hard time in this league and if you can’t match that intensity and desire you’ll come unstuck. Against Jersey we had a few lapses in concentration and fair play to them, they got a good win.
“Our main focus is Saturday away to London Scottish. It’s a long old season and it takes a toll, so it’s about keeping people on their feet and trying to feel fresh. The first pressure was to get to the play-offs, now the second part is to see what we can do from here.”
Bright as a button
Mulchrone drew praise from director of rugby Dean Ryan for his “fantastic” performance last weekend, the 25-year-old replacing the injured Chris Pennell at full-back during the home defeat by Bristol. England cap Pennell joins powerful centre Max Stelling as an injury doubt for the trip to Scottish.
In a tight game, yellow cards for Cooper Vuna and Jonathan Thomas hit the Warriors that day, and they will hope to keep a full complement on the field at Scottish, who have arguably the division’s Player of the Year in their ranks.
No 8 Mark Bright has scored an astonishing 24 tries – smashing the Championship
try-scoring record for a season – and the skipper is banking on a few hundred Edinburgh supporters, down for Friday night’s Challenge Cup final, acting as a 16th man.
“Hopefully, together as one, passionate Scottish fans can shout from the rafters and help us get over that winning line,” Bright says.
Both teams, Scottish and Worcester, are seeking to follow modern-era victors Exeter (2010) and London Welsh (2012 and 2014) in gaining promotion having not topped the log at the end of the regular season.
But the stats are squarely behind Bristol, who have a 100% record – 16 wins from 16 matches – against their three play-off rivals during DoR Andy Robinson’s time in charge.
They make nine changes for their home semi-final first leg with Rotherham, recalling Welshmen Dwayne Peel, Gavin Henson, Matthew Morgan and Gareth Maule, among others, to the back-line.
“There are a number of players who could easily have been selected this weekend,” said Robinson, who felt confident enough to name his side early in the week. “It’s for the guys who have the shirts to get out there and put in a performance.”
Remember the Titans
Rotherham go into the play-offs on the back of four successive wins, and their bullishness is illustrated by a comment on their match report of last weekend’s 19-3 defeat of London Scottish.
“As news flooded in around Abbeydale about Bristol’s victory over Worcester,” it says on the Titans’ website, “there was an air of optimism surrounding the ground.” Fighting talk borne of a belief that Bristol’s nerves could cost them once again – since the Championship was professionalised in 2009-10, they’ve topped the table on three previous occasions without reward.
If Bristol and Worcester somehow both stumble, and if Rotherham are unable to give Lee
Blackett a dream send-off before he joins Wasps’ back-room team, there is a fourth potential outcome – that nobody goes up.
That’s because London Scottish fail to meet the minimum standards criteria required to play in the Premiership, so should they win the play-offs they will stay put and London Welsh will get to play with the big boys for another year. One suspects Welsh won’t be cheering their fellow Exiles with total conviction…
Greene King IPA Championship semi-finals, first legs
Saturday: Bristol v Rotherham (Ashton Gate, 1.30pm), London Scottish v Worcester (Richmond Athletic Ground, 1.45pm).
Friday 8 May: Worcester v London Scottish (Sixways, 7.45pm). Sunday 10 May: Rotherham v Bristol (Clifton Lane, 1.45pm).