At times like this in the season some Directors of Rugby at Premiership clubs must wonder why on earth they ever took the job. The noise and discussion is all around the ‘R’ word and for the teams hovering in that horrible dark zone at the bottom of the table it must dominate everything else. Survival is now the name of the game. Where’s Ray Mears when you need him…
With rugby club royalty Leicester Tigers hovering just above the relegation zone there is a sense of panic in the Premier League. The last ‘big’ clubs to go down were Saints and Harlequins who survived and made it back without too much damage. The landscape has shifted however with more TV money swishing around the Prem it means squads are more expensive and you need now need those top-quality players to compete. Tumble into the Championship with a £7m wage bill and it is going to be a titanic struggle to stay afloat. For the Premiership to be missing such big hitters as the Tigers with their 24k crowds and massive support base will also have an impact on TV viewing figures and sponsorship. Despite all that, short of a last minute panic deal to ring fence or increase the league to 13, it could happen.
Tigers face fellow struggler Newcastle Falcons on Friday night in a game that has instant ramifications for both. If Falcons lose, they will feel cut adrift with only three games to go and should Tigers lose with no bonus point they will be staring relegation full in the face.
Newcastle Falcons so very nearly came away from Allianz Park in North London with a deserved losing bonus point that just might have been crucial for survival in the league. It was a strong Falcons side missing just a couple of key men and they took the fight to Saracens. Live wire scrum half Takulua was everywhere and the forwards fronted up well in the set piece. The issue was their inability to break down the Sarries defence which was brick wall like.
Not the most scintillating first half which felt like a defence drill for the Sarries boys and not much else. The champions were quite frankly poor with countless errors and I guess the gulf between the sides is shown by the fact they still went on to win with a bonus point. Perhaps the Sarries mid-season break - they spent three days in St Anton in party mode - just might not have led to the best training and preparation they have ever had! Throw in the absence of the likes of Mako, Billy, Jamie George, Liam Williams, Will Skelton and Alex Goode and I guess coach Mark McCall is probably relieved they escaped with the points.
My belief is even if Tigers can’t claw out a win on Friday, they still can win again this season. There is the obvious rider though that for the players the fear and tension that takes over your body in these relegation games can lead to muddled thinking and errors you would not normally make. It’s pure pressure and we have all seen top class kickers miss easy punts at goal when the heat is on or normally safe hands drop passes in cup finals. How Tigers deal with these next four games will come down to their mentality. With Mike Ford hauled into camp to add some of his big game match experience and coaching nous they are aware they needed something different. Mike did not manage to shore up the defence in the game against Exeter, but the attack and physicality was much improved. Tigers were not good enough for the high flying league leaders but play the same way in their next four games and the spectre of relegation will vanish.
For Worcester Warriors despite a good fight against Wasps they are still a candidate for the drop. Their run in looks tricksy playing teams in the Top 6 with a final game against a Saracens side that always seem to peak around this time of the year. The clink of light is they also have three home games and have shown themselves more than capable of taking on the top sides on their artificial turf. Coach Alan Solomans has them playing in a good style and you cannot doubt some of the quality he has in the squad. Sale are travelling down the M6 and if they suffer from their normal travel sickness this could be an opportunity for Worcester to grab some vital points
Bristol still have some work to do before the champagne comes out with Saracens at home this weekend followed by Leicester away. The Tigers away game takes on the look of a massive game should both teams lose this weekend.
Elsewhere in the league I was thrilled to see Gloucester travel away to the in-form Northampton Saints and put in a big, big performance. As an ex forward, to me their pack is a thing of beauty with enough grunt, power and size to take on anybody. The backs have been good for a while but with the addition of Cipriani and strengthening of the forward pack the side looks beautifully balanced.
That valuable away win puts Glos in a fantastic position to nail a play off place which would be superb for the players and fans. It is always good to see the teams change in the top 4 and to have both Quins and Glos back up there brings excitement and some unpredictability. For me Gloucester has the best chance of upsetting the odds with a team that is now a match for Sarries and Exeter. Should Sarries reach the European finals they may be playing Gloucester in the Prem semi-final the following weekend and this could be the Cherry & Whites chance to put in a massive performance and power themselves into that final at Twickenham.