By Alan Dymock
THE RHETORIC of battles is always used in professional rugby, as if the weeks of weights and hours of Xbox were shared experiences with servicemen and women garrisoned around the globe.
The battle of the breakdown, the scrap at the set piece and more commonly the fight for the title and the relegation dog-fight. Rugby, it is always coloured, is an endless skirmish with the ugliest attrition being seen as the basement dwellers struggle to climb the stairs back to the moneyed environs of the Aviva Premiership.
However, the most intense and indeed exhilarating stramash as we head into the season’s end may not come from title semi-finals or cup deciders or even one-off league deciders, but with the Play-Offs deciding who bursts into the top leagues next term.
With Dean Richards and his Newcastle Falcons the image conjured up in the last few weeks is one of the old England No 8 standing on a trading floor, snapping up players on the cheap and strengthening his club’s portfolio. He is buying low and aiming high.
What many forget, however, is that Newcastle are not in the Promised Land yet.
The Falcons have run away with the league, only losing once all year – the opening game of the season to Bristol – and grumpily denying opposition from scoring too many points against them. Now they face a playoff semi-final with fourth placed Leeds Carnegie and if they win that they have a final against the winner of Nottingham versus Bedford Blues.
Undoubtedly, Falcons are favourites to continue their impressive form. Steadied by Jimmy Gopperth (off to Leinster in the summer) and driven by a obtrusive pack, they will not be bowled over by any other team in their league. But they may be looking a bit too far ahead.
The Championship playoffs can tend to get ignored, particularly with the ups, downs and vomit inducing spins of the of the Premiership survival scrap. The will-they-won’t-they drama of London Welsh’s bid to stay up was offset against upturns in form from Sale Sharks and London Irish and all of a sudden it was assumed that Newcastle would win promotion.
They are strong favourites, but nothing is ever certain in professional sport.
Just look at the goings-on in France over the last season. No one expected Grenoble to put up much resistance, but they strung together powerful performances and were near unbeatable at home. They topple Top 14 leaders Toulon at the weekend and they are safe this season. All of this despite being the champions of the Pro D2 the season before.
This year Oyonnax have earned automatic promotion to the top table in France, replacing one of Stade Mantois and Agen. The other promotion spot will go to the winner of the playoffs between the second, third, fourth and fifth placed teams.
There are two more rounds left with La Rochelle, Brive, Pau and Aurillac currently occupying the hot spots. Yet Lyon and Tarbes could still, realistically, snatch a place late on if circumstance is kind to them.
While most eyes will be on the title playoffs in England and France, spare a thought for the blood-spattered warriors trying to claw their way into those celebrated leagues. Their rumbles may just be that little bit more life-changing.