Promoted clubs have a mountain to climb in England's top flight but they usually succeed, giving heart to Premiership returnees Bristol. Alan Pearey reports
The play-off system dilutes the significance of finishing positions at the top end of the Aviva Premiership, but at the bottom it’s quite the opposite – 12th and last spot is a dreaded fate.
And this year the bookmakers see it as a three-way relegation battle, with Betway predicting Worcester (10-11) to ultimately lose out against Bristol (6-4) and Newcastle (100-30) in the season that kicks off this weekend with Friday night games at Kingsholm and Kingston Park.
The logic is understandable because Dean Ryan, who steered the Warriors to tenth place last season, 15 points clear of relegated London Irish, departed unexpectedly in mid-summer for the RFU and no one knows if he will leave a void. Carl Hogg, now the main man at Sixways, has coached in the Premiership for more than a decade, including six years as a head coach at Worcester and Gloucester, so experience is not an issue.
Worcester’s ability to adapt to a new artificial pitch is another unknown dynamic, and, perhaps to their detriment, they entertain Newcastle – who have an artificial pitch of their own – as early as round five.
Falcons director of rugby Dean Richards has spoken about “nailing those small margins” after several narrow defeats (and 11th place) last season and their pre-season form has been encouraging, with wins against Edinburgh (26-21), Doncaster (34-12) and Nottingham (50-12) building momentum ahead of their opener against Sale Sharks. But Worcester, too, can point to matches they contrived to lose from strong positions, so it could be difficult to separate the two clubs again.
Bristol are in a different boat, returning to the Premiership after a seven-year period in which they have been accustomed to winning a high percentage of matches but stumbling at the last.
Conventional wisdom is that the gap between Premiership and Championship is vast and that the promoted club is handicapped by the lateness of the Championship play-off final, because all the best players have been snapped up by then.
So instant relegation for Bristol? It’s not that simple. Only three clubs, London Welsh, Leeds and Rotherham, have dropped straight back down (each on two occasions) and none had the support base or quality of infrastructure enjoyed by Bristol.
The yo-yo days haven’t existed since the Leeds-Rotherham era in the early part of the century, with only London Welsh failing to make the transition successfully in the past eight seasons. So although promoted clubs almost invariably struggle (see bar chart above), the key point is that they tend to survive and have a launch pad for bigger things. The goal for all is to ‘do an Exeter’.
The last time Bristol rose to the Premiership was in 2006 and in their first year back they finished 11th, with seven losing bonus points (unsurpassed in the division) to go with their eight wins. They were to stay four years.
Promoted clubs have been pretty good down the years at scrapping their way to narrow defeats (or wins) but startlingly deficient at bagging bonus points for scoring four tries in a match. Indeed, in the 15 seasons when bonus points have been on offer – the Premiership remained unchanged in 2002-03 because Rotherham failed to fulfil entry criteria – promoted clubs have managed just 17 try-bonus points between them. Even Exeter couldn’t manage one in their stunning debut campaign six years ago.
In their very first Premiership campaign as a promoted club (1999-2000), Bristol finished a heady sixth, 31 points clear of relegated Bedford. Had the bonus-point system existed then they would have chalked up 44 points, a tally bettered among promoted clubs only by Northampton (2008-09) and Harlequins (2006-07), established heavyweights who used shock relegation as a platform for becoming English champions.
Richmond, too (1997-98), who stole a march on most clubs at the start of the pro era, outperformed that 2000 Bristol side of Ryan and Archer, Pichot and Honiball, when bonus points are factored in, but that’s it, no one else has done it so well.
Is it relevant? Only in the sense that Bristol fans will not expect their club to be cowed by being back in the big time. They will expect Ashton Gate to be a fortress and to stay up with something to spare, and that confidence may give the squad – which contains 13 born-and-bred Bristolians – an extra nudge when things get tight.
Director of rugby Andy Robinson recently signed a new deal to stay at Bristol until 2019 and chairman Chris Booy’s stated ambition is European qualification and play-off participation.
Robinson is realistic. “I think there’s quite a big gap between the Premiership and Championship and it’s how quickly we can close the gap,” he says. “A number of our players have never played in the Premiership and they’re going to have to grow up very quickly.”
So who will it be for the drop? Hogg’s Warriors, Deano’s Falcons or Robbo’s reborn Bris? Rugby taking a shine to surprises these past 12 months, perhaps it will be none of them.
Opening Premiership fixtures
Fri 2 Sept: Gloucester v Leicester (7.45pm), Newcastle v Sale (8pm). Sat 3 Sept: Saracens v Worcester (2pm), Harlequins v Bristol (4.30pm, both Twickenham), Northampton v Bath (3.30pm). Sun 4 Sept: Wasps v Exeter (3pm).