My predictions last week may not have come back to haunt me on the scale that Dave Ellis’ did. While the former French defence coach’s claims that the French would target the ‘weakness of Tuilagi’ transpired to be somewhat wishful, a significant amount of egg needs to be removed from my face, writes Richard Grainger.
Firstly, bar ratification by the RFU – always a possibility – it looks as though the structure of the Championship will receive a radical shake-up for next season. Last week I reported that there was a general consensus among the clubs that the current format, minus the ridiculous intransigence leading to a backlog of fixtures, was to their liking. Not so, it would appear. A majority voted for the current play-off format to be scrapped and for the club that finishes bottom to be relegated, while the top four contest Premiership promotion with home and away semi-finals, and a two-legged final. The semi-final pairings will be decided by where the top four finish at the end of the regular season.
If approved, the coming season will end for all but the top four on 13th April 2013, and this will reduce the number of home matches from 16 to 14 for those who don’t make the play-offs.
The sweetener for this would appear to be a makeover of the British and Irish Cup, which is currently as quirky as the offset pedals of an Italian sports car.
The B&I Cup will now consist of six pools of four who will meet each other on European Cup weekends. This will give the contest come context, and — many would say — some rationality. Funding and prize money are still under negotiation, but it is understood that the competition will be much more attractive to the Championship sides who will be enticed to take it seriously. The Cornish Pirates apart, most clubs have used the competition to rotate their squads.
Back to the present, and my second erroneous prediction: on Saturday, Esher defied my optimism by losing 12-16 to London Scottish.
Both sides threw everything into this full-blooded contest at Molesey Road, with defences tested to the limit. Esher, the more enterprising of the two, created several chances but conceded too many penalties at critical times and in kickable areas. Exiles’ Dan Mugford was on song with the boot with five successful shots at goal, and the Scottish managed somehow to hold on to a four-point advantage in a scoreless final 26 minutes, despite the home side throwing the kitchen sink at them.
Elsewhere in the Championship basement, Moseley came back from a 6-17 deficit at Billesley Common to send Plymouth home empty-handed. James Love kicked four first-half penalties for the visitors and Ruairi Cushion touched down early in the second period to give Albion a comfortable lead. However, Moseley responded with four penalties from Ollie Thomas, taking his tally for the day to six, before Adam Caves scored the try that swung the game away from Plymouth.
Results followed the formbook in Pool A with wins for Bristol and London Welsh. At Castle Park on Friday night, Bristol racked up a nine-try win over injury-ravaged Doncaster. Ross Johnston scored a hat-trick, the impressive Jack Tovey bagged a couple, and Luke Eves, Ben Glynn and Fatua Otto all crossed for the visitors.
At the Old Deer Park on Saturday, London Welsh notched a bonus point win against Nottingham, but it was anything but one-way traffic. Coach Lyn Jones expressed the view that the win was more important than the performance, but said this through gritted teeth, as six penalties and two men in the bin in the 20 minutes following half-time could have cost them dearly. In the event, it only cost them three points; four tries to two just about reflected the difference between the sides on the day. Nottingham coach, Glenn Delaney put the result down to turnovers, a lack of accuracy and the failure to take advantage of their numerical advantage. Nottingham chief executive Simon Beatham claims that the Green and Whites now fulfill all criteria for Premiership rugby. All bar one, it would appear — a side to get them there.
Another coach who was a little less than happy with his team’s performance was Cornish high performance manager, Chris Stirling, who rated their afternoon’s work as “rubbish”.
At the Mennaye Field, Leeds, who had lost 52-10 on their previous Cornish outing last September, pulled off a minor upset in Pool B by forcing a 14 all draw. Stirling could find little to commend in the Pirates’ execution and hoped that a 24-hour break from his players would put him in a better frame of mind to rectify things before the tough trip to Rotherham on Sunday.
Finally, in Pool B, Bedford scraped past Rotherham at Clifton Lane by virtue of scoring 21 points in the final seven minutes to transform a 16-11 deficit into a 19-32 bonus point victory. The Blues, who were behind for most of the match, visited the Titans’ 22 four times in the final ten minutes and came away with three tries. Earlier, Garry Law, the division’s leading points scorer, had missed three kickable penalties.
However, the Titans, who lose skipper Sam Dickinson to Northampton next season, will take heart from how they played in the first 70 minutes and from the news that the Pirates had to settle for a home draw.
All this leaves the Championship Stage Two pools looking like this. Pool A, Pool B and Pool C