Chris Hewett: Robinson's year of hard labour may all be in vain

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The Independent Online

Slowly but surely - and much against its better judgement - the rugby community is beginning to accept the play-off system imposed on the Premiership by its custodians in 2003, just as the great British public accepted measles and Channel Five, for the very good reason that they had no choice. The play-offs remain wholly unloved, but the clamour over the injustice of it is nowhere near as loud as it was this time last year, or the year before that. In fact, there would have been no dissenting voice at all had not Jason Robinson piped up on the subject.

The former England captain believes the side finishing top at the end of the regular season - in this case, his very own Sale - should, at the very least, receive a title for their efforts. Robinson's close acquaintance with rugby league leads him to the conclusion that success over a 22-match slog deserves recognition in the form of a "minor premier" award, which might ease some of the pain of the table-toppers' inevitable defeat come Grand Final day.

Three times in three seasons, Wasps have played second fiddle to rival clubs between the start of September and the end of April, only to sneak up the blind side at Twickenham and pinch the crown jewels. Gloucester, Bath and Leicester have all felt the sting, the effrontery of which knocks Paul Newman and Robert Redford into a cocked hat. Not only were they denied their rightful reward, they left with nothing. In their opinion, the most influential Robinson in the union game is not Jason, or even Andy. It is Anne.

"You can finish 18 points above the fourth-placed club, but they have the same chance of making the final as you do," complained the Sale captain. "Whoever finishes first is not awarded anything as champions, which doesn't make sense, considering it's the hardest thing to do.

"You have to reward the guys finishing top; otherwise, it doesn't matter where you end up: first, second, third or fourth. What do I say to the Sale players? Well done for getting bashed about for 22 games, let's shake hands?"

He has a point - a point with which the Premiership administrators have been wrestling ever since they attempted, and failed, to sneak the play-off system in through the back door without anyone noticing in 2002. A 22-game programme played in all winds and weathers is quite a proposition, given both the small squads available to directors of rugby constrained by a salary cap and the iron determination of the national unions to swamp the fixture list with Test matches, thereby placing even more strain on the Premiership workforce.

Fewer international games, more sympathetically scheduled, might help. The International Rugby Board would no doubt argue that this would stunt union's growth as a major spectator sport, but as most of this growth is at Premiership level anyway - this has been a record-breaking season in England, with crowds averaging above 10,000 for the first time - it would be logical to give the world's most successful club tournament its head. Sadly, rugby's antediluvian top brass are not the most rational of folk.

An even more sensible load-lightening option would be to scrap the play-off system altogether. The sponsors love it, of course: a high-profile occasion on the last weekend of the season, with a 50,000-plus crowd and live satellite television coverage, is manna from heaven for the corporate types. And if truth be told, the clubs love it too. Domestic rugby business may be booming, but as it started from a base bordering on the subterranean, there is no appetite to turn down offers of the folding stuff, whatever the ultimate price.

There is, however, an entrenched sporting culture in this country - one that follows the football model and honours its league champions, just as it defends the principle of relegation. The English clubs have turned away from 50 per cent of that culture, and would happily rid themselves of the other 50 per cent given half a chance. They commit these crimes at their peril.

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