Leicester livid as season's spoils are left up for grabs

By moving the posts at this late juncture the knee-jerk administrators have forced the club game into another pratfall

There is no guarantee that Leicester will pitch up in Reading to play London Irish this afternoon. Why should they? The Midlanders secured their place in the top eight of the Zurich Premiership - and, by extension, their right to participate in the new-fangled Zurich Championship - so long ago that they can barely recall the details of how and when they achieved this momentous feat. Now they know that the Championship, as opposed to the Premiership, is the only competition in town, Martin Johnson and company can forget about domestic club rugby until the last weekend in April. Money for old rope, this professionalism lark.

There is no guarantee that Leicester will pitch up in Reading to play London Irish this afternoon. Why should they? The Midlanders secured their place in the top eight of the Zurich Premiership - and, by extension, their right to participate in the new-fangled Zurich Championship - so long ago that they can barely recall the details of how and when they achieved this momentous feat. Now they know that the Championship, as opposed to the Premiership, is the only competition in town, Martin Johnson and company can forget about domestic club rugby until the last weekend in April. Money for old rope, this professionalism lark.

At least the events of Tuesday last were entirely in keeping with pro rugger as we English have come to know and love it: that is to say, magnificently mishandled and spectacularly cock-eyed. Twenty-four weeks into the 40-week campaign - during which period they had summoned up injury-time victories over Wasps and Gloucester, survived the ransacking of their squad during the pre-Christmas international series' and sweated rivers of blood to chisel out a Boxing Day victory at Bath - the Tigers, nine points clear at the top of the league, were politely informed that they need not have tried quite so hard. Why? Because the Premiership suddenly means diddly-squat. The champions will be the winners of a three-match end-of-season play-off series, not those who prove their mettle on the 22-match route march through the regular season.

Of course, Leicester might win the Grand Final at Twickenham on 13 May and secure a third consecutive domestic title: given that they can afford to field an Extra Third XV in their remaining league games, their senior side should be nicely rested and champing at the bit come the first round of play-offs on 28 April. But that is not quite the point. From the middle of last August to the middle of this week, Johnno and his buddies thought that by going balls-out in every Premiership fixture, home and away, they would be rewarded with their hearts' desire. By moving the rugger posts at this late juncture, the knee-jerk administrators of English First Division Rugby have forced the club game into yet another pratfall.

Premier Rugby, the marketing arm of EFDR, has been bombarding the game with hyperbole in an effort to justify their volte-face. The dictionary has been stripped bare of adjectives: according to the communiqué from Twickenham, the various coaches and directors of rugby consider the elevation of the play-offs to winner-takes-all status to be "fantastic", "brilliant", "massive", "immense", "dramatic". Jack Rowell of Bristol talked about a "crescendo". Philippe Saint-André of Gloucester hijacked the phrase "Super Bowl".

And in truth, some of them love the idea to bits: after all, a number of clubs now have a live season to think about, rather than a dead duck. But Leicester are apoplectic; Dean Richards, their team manager, was profoundly equivocal in his published response and a whole lot angrier in private. Neil Back, their international flanker, could not resist going public. "It's a joke," he said yesterday, 'I'm against it, full stop. If we win the Premiership then in my eyes, and everyone else's eyes, we'll be champions." They were not alone in their anger. Jon Callard, the director of rugby at Bath, was honest enough to say: "I genuinely feel sorry for the Tigers; if we were in their position, we'd be aggrieved." The last time a Bath man professed sympathy for Leicester, the Romans still had an empire.

Of course, Premier Rugby understands the weakness of its argument. That is why it asked Peter Deakin, the chief executive of Sale and a marketing genius, to sell the idea to the oval-ball nation. Deakin could sell ski-jumping to the Syrians: a rugby league man by upbringing, he worked minor miracles during a successful spell with Saracens, for whom he single-handedly created a new and enthusiastic paying audience. He is unshakeable in his belief that the play-off system will deliver; that it is a win-win option, through which spectator interest, television appeal and hard cash will be maximised. He is persuasive, too.

"I've worked in America and Australia, the two greatest sporting hotbeds on earth, and I've seen how play-offs hit the button," Deakin said this week.

"Every major team sport in the world operates some form of play-off mechanism, with the exception of Premiership football in this country. And if you look at football, you see dozens of entirely meaningless matches in the final third of the season. Why should we want that for rugby? We're getting some flak over this right now, but the play-off road is the natural one for union to go down.

"It doesn't surprise me that people are hesitant, that they are suspicious of change; perhaps for the first time in a century, things are happening quickly in this game. Not so very long ago, union was the most self-righteous sport in existence, the biggest closed shop around. It is less than 15 years since the principle of league rugby was widely accepted and implemented. But there are new forces at work in the game now, people equipped with a business mind and a cutting edge. Let's get into it, for God's sake. If we can generate a seven-figure pay-out for our leading clubs through the play-off mechanism, let's go there." There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the play-off idea: French rugby has its championship final, the South Africans have their Currie Cup showpiece, the New Zealanders have a knock-out element at the sharp end of their National Provincial Championship. Super 12 does something similar. But this English version is a cop-out, and a badly-timed cop-out at that.

Had EFDR had the courage of its convictions, it would have incorporated the Premiership lock, stock and barrel into the Zurich Championship and run a single competition from the first weekend of the campaign. By giving Zurich two distinct tournaments in return for their financial support, which works a out at around £3.8m a season, and pretending that one sits easily with the other, they are attempting to fool all of the people all of the time. And we know what Abraham Lincoln thought of that policy.

Heaven alone knows why EFDR waited until the 16th round of Premiership matches to tell the paying public that they had not been watching what they thought they were watching: the most popular theory among the whispering classes is that television interests have been lobbying away behind the scenes. From the broadcasting perspective, a new eight-team competition in the spring sunshine is undeniably sexier than Leicester's pug-ugly pack mauling its inevitable way through the winter mud en route to an umpteenth Premiership triumph.

Deakin and his like-minded colleagues will no doubt make the best of a very bad job; Grand Final day at Twickenham will be something to savour, for sure. But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that English club rugby has done itself another mischief this week. Imagine this little scenario if you will: Leicester win the Premiership by 15 points, Gloucester win the Heineken Cup and Saracens, the side who contrived to lose at Rotherham not so very long ago, keep their powder dry for the play-offs and win the Zurich Championship. Who gets the top English seeding in Europe next season? Yes, you guessed it: Saracens. Crazy, eh?

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