Rugby Union: More agony than ecstasy

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The Independent Online
IN THE Courage Clubs' Championship - which, for a quenching pounds 7m, it will remain - it is the agony / ecstasy time of the year again; only, this year's reconstruction of the divisions means there will be considerably more of the former, writes Steve Bale.

This is what the clubs have landed themselves with by their treasurers' desire to introduce home-and-away fixtures - which will self-evidently be fairer but does nothing to alleviate the over-playing of leading players.

To reduce the national divisions from 13 clubs each to 10 and so have 18 league games, there is a snowballing system of relegation which means that well over half the 64 'national' clubs will go down. And only four (one from each division) promoted.

Bath's points-difference superiority over Wasps is such that they would win the championship by beating London Scottish at home this afternoon provided Wasps obliged by losing at Orrell. The former is more certain than probable, the latter more than possible.

Rugby are already down from the First Division, Coventry, Fylde and Morley from the Second, and Liverpool St Helens, Askeans, Aspatria, Broughton Park and Plymouth Albion from the Third. They - all members of the senior clubs' association - can't say they weren't warned. The Rugby Union suggested a cut-off going down the league after 10, 20 and so on. But the clubs wanted promotion and are duly suffering from the knock-on effect.

Now that rugby lives in a meritocracy, perhaps we should shed no tears for whoever fills the three remaining First Division relegation places. On the other hand, if Gloucester - distinctive and distinguished nurturers of home-grown talent - were to be among them, it would be a sad, sad day.

They desperately need a win at Bristol in the 186th meeting of the great West Country rivals, but then the same could be said of London Scottish (what a time to have to play Bath) and Saracens at London Irish. West Hartlepool are already as good as down with Rugby.

The biggest crowd in England will be at none of these, however. Twickenham (present capacity: 54,000) will resound with around 10,000 when Fleetwood play Hitchin in the final of the Provincial Insurance Cup, the knock-out competition for those in the league's nether reaches.

There are bigger cup fish to fry in Wales, where the Swalec Cup is at its quarter-final stage. Alas for Welsh rugby, Bonymaen v Swansea, Bridgend v Newport, Llanelli v Pontypridd and Neath v Cross Keys are merely hors d'oeuvre to the main course, the motion of no confidence in the Welsh Rugby Union committee at tomorrow's special general meeting.

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