The end is nigh - or is it?
April 30, 2012
Is there more agony awaiting Jimmy Gopperth and the rest of the Newcastle Falcons on Saturday? © Getty Images
The scrap for Aviva Premiership survival is set to reach a dramatic climax at Adams Park on Saturday where relegation-threatened London Wasps will play host to basement side Newcastle Falcons - but sadly for both sides and the sport in the general, the team who finishes at the foot of the table will not know their fate at the final whistle.
A victory for Wasps may ensure they are not propping up the rest of the Premiership come 3.30pm and a 24-point win - while also denying their rivals a bonus point - may lift the Falcons off the foot of the table but unfortunately things are not that simple in the nerve-shredding battle just above the dreaded trap door.
The most alarming escape route open to both sides is that there may not be a club deemed worthy of replacing them in the top flight. Of the four Championship sides vying for the right to step up via the painfully convoluted play-off system, only one - Bristol - satisfy the detailed entry requirements laid down by Premiership Rugby while two - Cornish Pirates and Bedford Blues - may be keen on claiming the title but have no intention of joining the big boys with the former still troubled by building delays on the planned 'Stadium for Cornwall' and the latter also troubled by ground-related shortcomings. The fourth team in the mix, London Welsh, are understood to have undertaken the required audit of their facilities with the exact detail of a possible groundshare with Brentford FC an apparent sticking point.
The other pressing issue concerns Wasps' financial predicament. Despite a host of big name signings for next season including internationals James Haskell, Tom Palmer and Stephen Jones, money is tight at Adams Park. They are understood to have funding to cover the remainder of this season but beyond that the prospect of administration looms large.
Rugby Football Union regulations state that any club who remain in administration beyond a period of six weeks will be docked 22 points - and should that sanction be applied to this current campaign then not even the most heroic effort this weekend can save Wasps. Such a scenario would see a Falcons side that may have already been 'relegated', rescued from the drop and reinstated some time this summer. That would cause all sorts of financial and logistical planning issues but an even bigger headache looms for Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Football Union should that come to pass and a club not 'fit' for promotion claim The Championship crown. With no team to replace Wasps - would the Premiership go ahead with 11 sides or offer the space to someone else? Perhaps not worth thinking about at this point in proceedings.
Without new investment, relegation will be the least of Wasps' worries but there is hope for the 145-year-old club that has claimed the Premiership title four times and conquered Europe twice in the last decade. The warning signs were there when current owner Steve Hayes put the club up for sale earlier this season having failed to secure council backing for a proposed new purpose-built stadium. A rescue package reportedly led by Barnet FC chairman Tony Kleanthous has since fallen through but another spearheaded by former player Ken Moss has offered them a lifeline but crucially it is dependent on them cementing their place in the Premiership.
Thankfully the 'promotion' battle in The Championship and talk of depressing balance sheets will be put to one side come kick off on Saturday and for 80 minutes at least we can pretend that the issue will be decided on the pitch. But who will triumph?
Sam Vesty's premature celebration and Tom Varndell's outstanding defensive work in the penultimate round of the regular season not only secured a priceless losing bonus point for Wasps but may have robbed us of a real thriller at Adams Park. What could have been a straightforward shoot-out for Premiership survival now comes with conditions that on paper look near to insurmountable for the Falcons.
Form can often be ignored in such circumstances with the 'do-or-die' nature of the contest sure to bring out the best of both sides as long as they can handle the pressure of the situation. But there is no escaping the fact that these sides have been poor for much of the season. While they may not be the most potent side in attack, Newcastle's tally of 24 tries is not the lowest in the league - Worcester claim that 'honour' with 21 - but any side that leaks 55 tries is going to struggle come crunch time. The more telling fact is just five wins but one of those came against Wasps in October - their first win of the season and perhaps more importantly two have come in their last three games with another decent showing against Saracens ending in a narrow defeat.
But as mentioned, simply winning will not be enough. There is also the small matter of a 24-point winning margin - a requirement that looks beyond a Falcons side lacking firepower. Unlike the free-scoring Leicester Tigers, the Falcons do not possess the weapons to pose a constant threat and a winning margin of nine points is the best they have managed this season. They have shown improvement since the arrival of South African coach Gary Gold - but they are nowhere near that kind of form. Quite simply they have a formbook to rip up and a mountain to climb.
Victories have been hard to come by for Wasps too with just two league victories since October but they can take heart from that the home side has won the last three meetings between these two teams and Newcastle's only victory in ten previous visits to Adams Park was two years ago.
There will be enough talent on show to keep a capacity crowd and ESPN viewers glued but both sides have regularly struggled to deliver on their potential. One to buck the trend is Wasps winger Christian Wade who has collected eight tries in an injury-hampered season but not even he can match the consistency of Falcons playmaker Jimmy Gopperth whose 217 points tally follows a Premiership best mark of 230 last season.
Gopperth's class is not in doubt but he is not a miracle worker and the odds suggest that arguably the best No.10 in the Premiership is set to become the outstanding playmaker in the Championship next season.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.