Premiership finale far from perfect
John Taylor
May 8, 2007

"What a letdown! The whole raison d'etre for the Guinness Premiership play-offs was to bring the season to a rousing finish with nothing decided until the final day but it was exposed last weekend as seriously flawed." JT reports

Both 'semi-finals' were embarrassingly one-side with dogged Bristol just about retaining respectability in the 26-14 defeat at Leicester but Saracens losing all credibility as a top four team after the 50-9 rout at Kingsholm.

Those of us who argue that the club which has battled its way through 22 gruelling league matches over eight months in all sorts of conditions deserves to be Champions (if it's good enough for Premiership Football it's good enough for me) have been dismissed as old fashioned fuddy duddies but, I for one, still believe it will be a travesty of justice if Leicester pip Gloucester next weekend to take the title.

Quite apart from the fact that doing away with the play-offs would free two precious weekends in the overcrowded calendar my biggest objection is the way the present system allows clubs to target specific games and effectively throw others by selecting weakened teams if they feel it is in their best interests.

All credit to Bristol coach, Richard Hill. He managed his limited resources wonderfully well and achieved a near miracle but nobody saw Bristol as serious title contenders at any stage.

They made it into the top four because it suited Leicester to have them there and that sort of manipulation has to be highly suspect. Just as Hill had sent a weakened team up to fortress Welford Road last December (Bristol were walloped 43-15) because he had important matches coming up and felt it was almost impossible to win, there was Pat Howard, the canny Leicester coach, deciding he could afford to lose at Bristol on April 24th and still finish second thereby guaranteeing a home play-off semi-final. His reserve side duly went down 30-13 which short changed the other clubs and the fans.

But under the present system it was totally justifiable. His priority was to beat Wasps the following Saturday. By doing that he would strike an important psychological blow against his likely Heineken Cup Final opponents and, just as important, by giving Bristol four points and denying Wasps, he would keep them out of the top four so that they could not repeat their late surges of recent seasons - three times from 2002 to 2005 they finished second in the table but won the title in the play-offs.

There are other benefits too. Wasps will have a good rest before the Heineken Cup Final, perhaps too good a rest. End of season tiredness works in a peculiar way. Leicester had the perfect game on Saturday - a good work out but not too taxing and now they know they have two huge games to come.

It is sometimes easier to keep the focus in training despite the weariness of the body when you have a game at the end of the week than when you have a weekend off. One week off at this stage of a long season is possibly a benefit but Wasps have a three week lay-off between their last league game and the Heineken Cup Final. When they were playing and their opponents resting a couple of years back I remember Lawrence Dallaglio saying he would much rather be in action and I think that goes for most players. The bonus is that they should not have any injury problems.

Even at the other end of the table there were worrying ramifications surrounding the commitment of teams. Knowing that Leicester were intent on knocking over Wasps Saracens probably felt pretty confident of finishing fourth even if they lost to Worcester. I'm not suggesting for one moment that they did not want to win but, psychologically, they were perhaps ambivalent.

A trip to Leicester or a trip to Gloucester in the play-offs? Both a daunting task but dare I suggest Gloucester might just appear the more attractive option. Worcester knew it was death or survival and played out of their skins but Saracens did not put up much of a fight for a top four club - perhaps saving themselves for the play-offs?

Little good it did them but then, you always felt they had reached that elevated position by sneaking in under the radar.

I am not trying to undermine the success of the Premiership - I'm a huge fan - but just because the spin doctors keep pumping out the good news about increasing attendances and rising standards it does not mean they have got it absolutely right.

They have, fingers crossed, sorted out their differences with the RFU enough to insure the Heineken Cup goes ahead next season - we might even have the basis for a lasting peace - but the play-offs are definitely dodgy.

Have a subsidiary end of season knockout if you must but, although I expect Leicester to shade it on Saturday and I expect the match to be everything last weekend was not, Gloucester deserve to be champions.

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