The Premiership is not a level playing field. Some teams receive lesser financial assistance than others from those that run the professional club game; some clubs have rich owners and a creative approach to money that allows them to come in with strong squads just beneath the salary cap whereas other teams don't even dream of spending anywhere near the full allowance.
Some clubs have outstanding foundations based upon large numbers flocking through the turnstiles, others have a fight to attract audiences and market the game. Imagine a handicapper, a la horse racing, sitting down before the season kicked off. Assessing the quality or not of the dozen teams, he would have advantaged the lesser fancied teams with a stack of varying points whilst deducting from the big guns dependent upon their form and history in a bid to make the race to the play offs and relegation as close as your average handicap at Pontefract.
We have passed the line with the Big Three and Harlequin in the play offs and Newcastle, fancied along with Worcester for the drop, awaiting their fate as the ridiculous concept of non-promotion is hopefully put in its place by Bristol.
I write 'hopefully' neither in support of one of my old clubs or against Newcastle because the whole promotion/relegation issue is at the core of club rugby. Events on the field should never be overruled by circumstances off it.
So too the fact that Exeter are shamefully not on a level playing financial field until they have spent a good few more years in the Premiership and are accepted as part of the professional old boys club.
Quotes of the week
By all means set criteria that must be met within a certain number of seasons of promotion but the performances on the field must be the guiding rules of the game. Anyway, with a defiant finish to their season and Dean Richards at the helm Newcastle might well benefit from a spell in the Championship.
True, the Falcons do not have the depth of supporter base that Northampton, Harlequins and indeed, Bristol, possess but they have solid financial foundations in place and a chance to do more than merely hang on. The club has fallen away badly since it won the first professional title. It needs an injection of life. They have the man to see them through it and, whilst their fans will be praying injustice is done and the Championship is won by a team without the prerequisites for promotion, a year out of the spotlight might just be a boon.
Sorry, I digress. Back to the handicapped race for the Premiership; we have a different team with its head in front after twenty two gruelling rounds.
Triumph for Chiefs
Who really thought Exeter would finish fifth and qualify for the Heineken Cup, going all the way to round 22 with a play-off chance? Man for man the squad looked the weakest in England preseason. Rob Baxter has turned the perception of others into an advantage. So too the fact that Exeter are shamefully not on a level playing financial field until they have spent a good few more years in the Premiership and are accepted as part of the professional old boys club.
It is case of players and club not being wanted and the Devonians sticking a polite two fingered salute to those who preferred life in the elite without them. Baxter is an alchemist; he has turned average players like James Scaysbrook and Haydn Thomas into performers who are regularly outstanding. Exeter may have had hopes for the top half of the table but nobody else did. Taking everything into account, Exeter wins the Premiership handicap. Next season will be tougher still because they will and deserve to 'carry more weight'.
Harlequins are stripped of the title by the Chiefs but a shot at their first Premiership is amble consolation. They were supposed to slip when the World Cup players arrived back in England but they kept going and defied their critics time after time. Shrewdly led both on and off the field, it has been Harlequins finest season ever and it's not done yet. They lose out by a short head to Exeter but have a length or two in hand on the fast finishing Tigers.
Leicester are runners up in the real world of the Premiership. Normally that constitutes a failure if one takes their squad and history into account. But considering how far they were off the pace by the end of the World Cup, this has been a sensational charge that merits plenty of recognition.
These three teams are a little clear of the rest. My fourth place is taken by a Sale side take overachieved in terms of qualifying for Europe and developing a playing style that will enable them to compete against the best. Steve Diamond's tenure has not been without controversy but on the field it has done extremely well.
Northampton rate fifth. They have not made strides from last year but have a few excuses with injuries, World Cup and undermining mid-season transfer news. They are underdogs for Harlequins but if Ashton is fit and can join a cutting edge of the extremely sharp Ben Foden and George Pisi then a final could yet beckon. They are 5-1 with the bookies but stranger things have happened.
Disappointed in Sarries
Saracens, third in the regular season and defending champions are a disappointing sixth. They have not developed their game from last year and should they lose in Leicester the tedious pragmatism of so much of their season will be seen as thinking muddled by the manner of last year's victory.
It irks me to award Worcester seventh place considering how little variation they brought to their game but survival for a newly promoted team is no given and Worcester worked their way to safety pretty early in a year when the relegated team cleared 30 which is at the higher end of the points scored for relegated teams.
London Irish are eighth. They have struggled to build on the last few years but boardroom strife and (again) injuries have hindered them. A fine finish to the season nudged them up the table with their try scoring tally eclipsed their overall performances.
Wasps are ninth. They teetered on the brink but have survived and developed a host of high potential youths like Christian Wade, Joe Launchbury and Elliot Daly who will see their fortunes rise on the field as long as they survive off it.
No glory for chery and whites
Gloucester are a dreadfully disappointing tenth. They looked set for Europe and maybe even the play-offs and then capitulated. The Shed was less fortress than cottage. It required no storming, just a few huffs and puffs. The departure of Bryan Redpath didn't help but where were the leaders to show some end of season spirit?
Newcastle are relegated in reality but survive in the handicap world. Plenty of teams have scored fewer points and survived. Had James Hudson been fit throughout maybe they would still be in the Premiership but they went done with three wins in their last five games which was a credit to the club.
Bath brings us the bottom of the handicap table. Is my disappointment greater because of historic connections? Or is it because they have played so little rugby? I can't criticise Saracens for being pragmatic and winning without shaking my head in dismay at the way Bath have performed - and lost!
Bruce Craig has brought big money to Bath but money doesn't guarantee wisdom. On and off the pitch Bath got it wrong. Ian McGeechan is a great rugby man but he wasn't the man Bath needed. There was a lack of accountability for the way they played and the position they finished. Only the supporters who continue to loyally pack the Rec deserve praise in a season that proved high finance is no immediate panacea for problems.
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The Irish Rugby Conundrum
Here we are in the middle of a golden era for the club game in Ireland with teams dominating the latter stages of Europe's premium competition for the last 3 to four years
Playing a combination of smart aggressive defence and scintillating attacking rugby and yet we cannot and have not made any strides as an International side.
All the key elements are in place central contracts, less pitch time for the key performers, coaching track record and much prized central administrative management during the professional era.
What do we need to do the build on this provincial success to become a consistent player at Rugby's top table? It is the great conundrum for the game in Ireland and one which I am hoping the sage of SKY Sports can answer.
STUART REPLIES: John,'Sage of Sky' indeed! It is a subject I have written about at length in the Irish Sunday Times. I believe the tight identity and professionalism of the Irish teams makes it harder not easier for the coach to create a national style. Leinster and Munster are culturally miles apart and this is before Ulster's arrival as a top notch team.
I guess there is no easy answer but maybe the question is loaded the wrong way. Maybe the Irish provinces see the international game as a hinderance to their Heineken ambitions. I know many a Munster fan who has said better the Heineken for their team than a Six Nations for Ireland. Are Leinster and Ulster thinking similar thoughts.
Where will Kidney look?
Hi Stuart, with the Heineken cup final being an all-Irish affair, do you reckon Kidney will look further north for Ulster players to fill in the boots of the national team. Players like Dan Tuohy, Chris Henry, Craig Gilroy, Darren Cave have been pivotal to Ulster's journey to the final. It was evident how badly Chris Henry was missed in the semi-final, and surely Darren Cave's tackle on Jim Thompson was enough to help get half a foot on the plane to New Zealand? Or do you think Kidney will continue to choose his fringe players from Munster using their pro12 position as an excuse?
STUART REPLIES: Ruairi, It is hard to compare pro12 with Heineken...no it is daft. The Heineken is a ladder rather than step up and surely Henry, Touhy and Cave have proved themselves at a sufficient level to make the flight to New Zealand. Cave has been particularly impressive in a quiet way. Apart from the big tackles he does the basics well and picks excellent lines.
No doping fears
Sorry if, with my comment, I'm about to bring a gloomy note to your brilliant column, but I would really like to hear your opinion on the subject. The fact is that I'm very worried for the game I love, which in my humble opinion is taking a slippery slope. This is a path American football has already taken and I don't like it at all - The increasingly violent contacts, the need for the players to bulk up and the spectre of doping, which overshadow the stunning, sudden physical transformation of certain athletes are all worrying signs, which many seem to ignore. What do you think? Is it already too late?
STUART REPLIES: Mauri, I am not overly concerned with doping issues although they will become a headline at some time because people do what they feel they must to gain an edge. But I wouldn't be getting hysterical quite yet. If Leinster wins the Heinken Cup they will have shown that skills and subtlety can win the day. Trends are cyclical and a quick thinking team dominating in Europe might get some of the thicker headed (non) thinkers
of the game reassessing the requirements of a winning team. We might even get a few more smart coaches.
Best of the hemispheres?
Morning Stuart, how do you feel the best of the Heineken Cup teams would fare against their Super XV counterparts? Oh and is Rob Kearney the best full-back in the world on current form?
STUART REPLIES: I think Leinster would take some beating although victory in SA or NZ would be tough against the Crusaders, Chiefs, Bulls or Stormers. But would they win in Dublin? I suspect not...as for Kearney, on current form the answer has to be yes although come the international summer we need to rate him against Kurtley Beale and Israel Dagg. Those boys can also play a bit but as of now, Rob is No 1 No 15.
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Stephen Short says...
still picking players from abroad when we have players in the saxons and under20s and in prem or championship that can play WHY?
Posted 19:16 10th May 2012
Fraser Tilley says...
Stuart, thoughts on the lack of Glos players in the latest England squad!
Posted 12:43 10th May 2012
James Stevens says...
If Newcastle, Wasps and possibly even Bath had been playing in the Championship this season do you think we would be seeing different play offs teams? I think the standard at the top end of the Championship is now about (lower) mid table Premiership and, if Bristol win, Newcastle may find it hard to get back despite the additional cash they have.
Posted 10:23 8th May 2012
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