Why Newcastle Falcons are playing in the most unfair league in British sport (From The Northern Echo)
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Why Newcastle Falcons are playing in the most unfair league in British sport
NEWCASTLE Falcons are by far and away the best side in rugby's second tier.
Fifteen points clear of their closest rivals, Bedford, with a game in hand, they have won all 14 of their league matches this season. Just for good measure, they also boast a 100 per cent record in the British & Irish Cup.
So despite a couple of months of the season remaining, they must be all but assured of promotion to the Aviva Premiership, right? Wrong.
Thanks to a promotion play-off system that makes rugby union's Championship the most unfair league in British sport, Falcons are really no nearer achieving promotion now than they were when the season began last September. How on earth can that be right?
Other sports have introduced a variety of play-off procedures to spice up the end of their domestic season, but all have a certain degree of fairness built in.
The side finishing third in football's Championship might grumble if they miss out on promotion to the team that finished sixth, but they weren't good enough to fill one of the two automatic promotion spots so their complaints are somewhat undermined.
Rugby league's play-off system is so elaborate it would take the whole of the rest of the column to explain it, but the side that finishes top in the regular season only has to win one match to make the Grand Final, and gets a second chance if they fail to succeed. A side finishing say fourth or fifth has a much more arduous route to glory. Not perfect perhaps, but at least there is a powerful incentive for finishing first.
What will Falcons' reward be if, as now looks all but certain, they finish top of the pile when the Championship programme concludes in late April?
They get to play the team that finished fourth in the semi-finals of the play-offs rather than the team that finished second or third. Oh, and they also get to play the second leg of their semi-final at home.
Brilliant. So after more than seven months of toil, their reward for being head and shoulders above their opponents is really no different to the prize for finishing fourth, which you could potentially achieve despite losing more than a third of your matches.
It's a farcical situation, but unfortunately it's one that could have far-reaching implications for Falcons, and the wider state of rugby union in the north given that the only Premiership club north of the Midlands, Sale Sharks, are desperately battling against relegation.
For all that Falcons are so much better than the rest of the Championship, and should therefore waltz their way through the play-offs no matter who is put in front of them, sport doesn't work like that.
An untimely spate of injuries in the final few weeks of the season, a sudden loss of form at the worst possible moment; either could prove devastating to a side that has proved itself on a weekly basis this term.
It can also be argued that rugby is more prone to a freak one-off result than a number of other sports given the central role of the referee, who could take a disliking to the work of the Newcastle pack and decide to issue a spate of penalties despite other officials having spotted nothing wrong all season, or the effects of the weather, which could turn the semi-final into a lottery played on a quagmire.
Is it really right that an entire season hangs on a handful of matches that stand completely separate from the rest of the campaign?
Championship officials claim it is the only way to maintain interest in the final weeks of the season, and argue that if the top side simply got promoted, the league would be done and dusted already.
They have a point, and rugby suffers from the fact that the side being relegated from the Championship is often significantly stronger than the rest of the teams in the league it is joining.
But it should not be too hard to build in a meaningful reward for finishing top in the regular season. Perhaps the league winners could go straight through to a play-off final? Maybe they could go up automatically, and the teams finishing between second and fifth in the Championship could play-off for the right to face the side finishing second from bottom in the Premiership in a promotion/relegation decider?
Either approach would be better than the current system, which must be making it hard for Falcons director of rugby Dean Richards to motivate his players for a series of league games that effectively mean nothing.
“I've said repeatedly that I don't agree with the play-off system,” said Richards earlier this season. “It doesn't encourage sides to think about stability or longevity, or bring through a rugby culture that you would want.”
It also leaves his side in limbo until the end of April. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Championship, excellence goes unrewarded.
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