Championship to Premiership – Mind the Gap

Just to clarify at the outset, I am talking about rugby union’s particular problems with the gap between the Premiership and the Championship, though I am aware of the parallels with the round-ball game.

The other Saturday I passed a very pleasant afternoon watching London Scottish end their Championship season with a dismal defeat against Nottingham. I shared the experience with about 800 other souls, which represents a decent crowd for the Exiles.

But just what do people mean when they talk about the gap between the Championship and Premiership? I’d like to talk some about some of the less obvious issues that aren’t often talked about.

I’m a strong believer that to be successful on the pitch the club has to have its ducks in a row off the pitch first. So while most commentators will talk about the gap in player salary budget and lack of time to sign players as being handicaps for the championship sides I think it starts much earlier than that.

Sides in the championship don’t have the same budget and that does impact on the size and quality of the administration team. That cuts across marketing, accounting, etc…Even sides like Worcester Warriors and Exeter Chiefs, who are held up as shining examples of how to get into and survive in the Premiership, have had issues. Worcester had a LV= point deduction  for an administrative error around player registration in 2012, and Exeter had 2 Aviva Premiership points deducted for a player entering England on his Australian not Fiji passport.

However signs that London Welsh weren’t prepared were much larger with their team manager Mike Scott banned for life from rugby for falsifying player registrations.Welsh were also fined and lost 5 points.

The Rugby Players Association covers all Premiership players. One of the things they do is set minimum standards around player contracts and mediates between players and clubs when issues arise. Nothing like this is set up for Championship clubs, and it is evident not all the clubs would want it to happen.

Players in the championship can be on very short-term rolling contracts. This means they can be an injury or concussion away from losing their jobs and ability to pay the mortgage/feed the family. Whilst Premiership players might be on a year-long contract they don’t have to worry about where their money is coming from week to week.

Championship clubs can lack the experienced administrators to follow the rules correctly and have players on very insecure contracts. Where there are these kind of uncertainties off the pitch, the coaches and players don’t have the base to fully concentrate on delivering on the pitch.

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The Clash..of two teams. chasing former glories

Bath Rugby v Leicester Tigers

April 8 2017

@ Twickenham Stadium

 

Bath: 27

Leicester:21

There was a time when Bath and Leicester Tigers would meet at Twickenham because they were the best teams in the country playing in an end-of-season shoot-out. On Saturday they were there for a regular-season fixture because Bath have a marketing department who have worked all hours and conjured a crowd numbering 61,816 in the warm spring sunshine. The game was officially billed as “The Clash”; less catchy, but they could have gone with “Two Faded Champions In Search Of Former Glory”.

The struggles of two of England’s greatest clubs have been curious and compelling to observe these past few years as they have attempted to snatch at the dominance that once seemed theirs by right. The league table tells some of the story: Leicester were fourth and Bath were fifth at start of play. They were wrestling each other for a place in the play-offs. At the end of this exciting but error-strewn contest Leicester are fourth and Bath fifth, albeit separated only on points difference. They are within reach of the top and yet also miles away.

In their greater times, they were models of success management. They knew the formula and they stuck with it. Now they are shuffling the cards, hoping that some day they will turn up an ace. Matt O’Connor arrived for his first day pitchside as Leicester’s head coach.-the third this season. Bath’s policy for their coaches, meanwhile, seems to have been that of the revolving door.

If there is any continuity here, it is Matt Banahan. He is Bath’s longest serving player: he joined in 2006 and has lost count of how many coaches have been and gone in that time.

Here he is trying to do the maths. “Maybe ten, maybe 13 different coaches,” he said. He then goes through them, one by one. He settles on 11. Then he remembers who he forgot: 12.

“Every coach picks up a squad, everyone gets excited and you get a few good games,” he said. “It’s just about maintaining it. We’ve got the squad to do great things; we just need to find that plateau to perform at a high level.”

Banahan is not intending to be critical. Not remotely. However, he could hardly make the point better. Bath rise and fall, their fortunes fluctuate; there is no plateau. What would happen if you stuck with one management team instead?

He will not say this, but I can: either Bruce Craig, the Bath owner, is too consistently poor at selecting his coaching teams; or he should stick by them and allow them to soak up the disappointments and turn them into successes.

Craig is not alone though. Shotgun management has become the order of the Premiership this season. (Sound familiar?)Your team hit hard times, you look around for answers, you sack one of the coaches. Leicester have done it three times this season. Rugby clubs used to pause and then react at the end of the season; this time, though, mid-season, five of the 12 Premiership clubs have made changes to their coaching structure.

And what of the clubs doing well? Well, there are only three of them and they tell the same story from the opposite perspective. At Saracens, who at present are, by some distance, England’s most successful club, Mark McCall has been director of rugby for six years. Top of the Aviva Premiership table? Wasps — where Dai Young has also been in place for six years. Second in the table are Exeter Chiefs; Rob Baxter, the head coach, was at the club before some of his players were born.

Does this not suggest that continuity wins? Banahan’s answer is straight to the point: “You’d obviously like that. But rugby, football, cricket — it’s a business, you are judged on results and that is how people keep their jobs and lose them.”

Bath have not had continuity. Not a glimmer of it. Yes, they started the season well, but the fixture list was kind to them and allowed them to build a head of steam against some of the weaker teams. Of late, though, they have run out of puff. They have lost their past three Premiership games, were humiliated 53-10 by Saracens, failed to score a try at home to Wasps and somehow conjured a defeat against Bristol.

The game’s other subplot revolved around the two fly halves, George Ford, of Bath, and Freddie Burns, of Leicester, who will swap clubs in the summer and will likely have something to prove to both sides.

Well into the final quarter it seemed that the aspirations of Bath had been roasted in the Twickenham sunshine, burnt to a frazzle and sent back to the kitchen. With 67 minutes gone Leicester led 21-13. , and then, finally, West Country hell was let loose.Taulupe Faletau went on a weaving run  and Anthony Watson cruised up outside with a trademark supporting run. The kick made it 21-20, and two minutes later, Faletau made big inroads again, the ball arrived in the hands of Watson via Banahan and it was 27-21 with the kick. Leicester were by now paying the penalty for their failure to cash in on their authority. Fly-half Freddie Burns commented:”Great occasion, disappointing result.”

Hid personal duel with Ford probably ended even. Both had their kicking boots on, and Leicester fell behind only after Burns had left the field injured.

Twickenham was magnificent on Saturday afternoon. There was a new crowd there, new fans; that is what Bath want to achieve and good luck to them. And they happened upon an almighty contest, full of history, over brimming with significance.

Mike Miles

Bath v Brive – The Rematch

Bath v Brive

April 1 2017

 

Back in the early days of the Heineken Cup it wasn’t entirely clear if all this cross-border competition was good for the game. France was the frontier town, and nowhere was more dangerous or more gilded than Brive, smack in the middle of the Limousin. This stand-alone town had already stunned the rugby world by humbling Leicester at Cardiff Arms Park in the final, only the second, of 1997.

 

For the third Heineken Cup campaign, the reigning champions from Brive were pooled together with Pontypridd, and the continuation of the two teams own feud. The rugby between the two clubs was brilliant, with the European champions winning 32-21 in a quite breathtaking game. Breathtaking, brilliant and brutal. The quality of the play was matched only by the quality of the fighting, a running brawl that extended way beyond the 80 minutes. After the rugby encounter in the Parc Muncipal, the teams met again, over the counter of the Bar Toulzac in the middle of Brive.

The Pontypridd players went into the Brive team’s drinking den to confront certain individuals, and in particular scrum half Philippe Carbonneau.Chairs, bottles and fists flew. By a wicked quirk of fate the two then met in what was called in those days a quarter-final play-off. Brive won at home 25-20, went on to win superbly at Loftus Road against Wasps in the quarter-final proper, and then beat Toulouse in Toulouse in the semi-final, on try count, after being tied 22-all after extra time.

 

Meanwhile, Bath, almost unnoticed, were in the final too, having beaten both Cardiff and Pau at the Recreation Ground. They were coached by Andy Robinson, had Jeremy Guscott and Ieuan Evans in the backs. They were considered a mature team with the best days behind them.

They were not expected to beat Brive in the 1998 final, especially not at the Parc Lescure in Bordeaux. And yet they did win, 19-18, with Jonathan Callard scoring all their points with a try, conversion and four penalties.

 

The reason for this trip down rugby’s memory lane is that the two teams met on Saturday at the Recreation Ground in a quarter –final of the Challenge Cup competition. 1998 had marked a European peak for both teams.

Bath’s best performance in the Heineken Cup was a semi-final appearance in 2005/06. They have been more successful in the Challenge Cup, reaching four finals since 2002/03, with one success, against Worcester in 2007.

Brive’s history since 1998 has been a rocky one, and includes two relegations to the second division, one in 2000 for financial mismanagement. Their only notable European performance was a Challenge Cup semi-final appearance in 2005.

 

So it is not surprising that Saturday’s match at the Recreation Ground should be the first between the two clubs for almost 20 years. Bath were on a rocky run in the Premiership with three consecutive defeats. With a lunch-time kick-off and the sun shining, there was a springtime feel to the match. Brive contributed a good deal, but were undone by some wretched defending. Bath stopped the rot with a highly entertaining victory 34-20, to set up a semi-final clash away to another French side, Stade Francais.

 

 

 

 

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk