Brian Ashton: Crazy play-off rules create more downs than ups for clubs

Tackling The Issues
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The Independent Online

You had to feel for Alan Tait and Neil Back, the head coaches at Newcastle and Leeds, as they saw their Premiership futures flash tantalisingly before their eyes last weekend.

I can only imagine what they were thinking as Worcester struggled to overcome a courageous and adventurous Bedford side who, under the weird and wonderful promotion rules, came within a few minutes – and, indeed, a few inches – of keeping both northern clubs in the elite league.

By the same yardstick, what did Richard Hill, the rugby director at Worcester, make of the proceedings, especially in respect of the celebratory non-try scored by one of his forwards? Knowing Richard as I do, I'd be astonished if the incident wasn't discussed, fully and frankly, in the after-match review. Bedford had nothing to lose in that Championship semi-final at Sixways, for the very good reason that they did not meet the promotion criteria. Neither do Cornish Pirates, who meet Worcester in the final over two legs, starting in Penzance on Wednesday night. Richard is still 160-plus minutes of rugby away from knowing his side's fate, as are one of Leeds and Newcastle, depending on who sits at the foot of the table later today.

I'm suspicious of play-offs in general – far from having the welfare of the players at heart, they are driven purely by commercial considerations – but what we have here is a full-blown farce: a system that not only makes it possible for a team finishing eighth of 12 in the regular season to win promotion, but sanctions semi-finals in which only one of the four contenders can graduate to the top tier. You couldn't make it up? It seems someone has.

A few rungs down the ladder, I notice that the play-off date for the last promotion spot into National League One is 28 May – an interesting piece of scheduling, given that the regular season's official finishing date was 30 April. One of the play-off contenders, Jersey, have four blank weeks while their likely opponents from postponement-hit National League Two North will be playing regularly ahead of the decisive match. There is an imbalance here: we know from past Premiership play-off mess-ups that these situations generally favour the more active team.

We are talking about rugby at a level where players still play primarily for fun and are now in danger of being significantly inconvenienced. Some will have booked holidays well in advance of the decision to extend the season; others are half-decent performers in one of the summer sports and find themselves being pulled two ways. Another scenario you couldn't make up? There it is, in stark reality.

A downside of writing a Saturday column is that a great deal of the week's news has been reported and discussed to death long before we get to the weekend. However, there are some topical issues I consider worthy of comment, even though I wish they hadn't got going in the first place. I speak of outbreaks of indiscipline.

Joining the likes of Andrew Powell, Ben Foden and Gavin Henson in making the sporting headlines for the wrong reasons just recently were Delon Armitage (again) and Danny Cipriani (again). I cannot believe all the aforementioned failed to realise that their actions would provoke a media frenzy, but they did what they did anyway. It might just be worth their while taking time out, without a drink in hand, to reflect on the views and behaviour of two genuine English superstars of the world game over the last decade.

The views are those of Jonny Wilkinson, arguably the highest-profile player in the sport since 2003. He has accepted, with his customary good grace, the apology made by Henson to his Toulon team-mates following the well-publicised incident in a bar on the Côte d'Azur last month, acknowledging that drink was involved and stressing that he and his colleagues are keen to make another attempt to integrate the troubled Welsh soul into the group. He also had some understanding words to say about Cipriani, crediting him for the courage he showed in breaking away to a new rugby scene in Australia (not that many in this country share that opinion!).

In essence, Wilkinson highlighted the importance of Cipriani finding an environment in which he could bring the best out of himself, just as Jonny appears to be doing in Toulon. Wilkinson is as outstanding a man as he is a rugby player, someone who has consistently followed the path of excellence without embracing the celebrity lifestyle and falling into its traps. Others should take note.

As for the behavioural trait that our band of miscreants might like to ponder, it belongs to Jason Robinson, with whom I have had the privilege of working again this season. His on-field ability at world level has never been questioned, and the same goes for his generosity towards, and understanding of, his fellow human beings, even though he had to fight his way up from tough beginnings in life. Jason always worked hard to be the best he could be and has continued to do so, even while playing level-four rugby at Fylde. In addition, he has been magnificently proactive in advising fellow players of all standards, and when he scored our final try of the season last weekend, the reception was one of genuine warmth.

Individuality, determination and the pursuit of excellence can go hand in hand with a sense of responsibility and compassion. Two of rugby's greats have clearly demonstrated this, and if it's good enough for them...

Toulouse's Noves knows how to lose gracefully – unlike some

Congratulations to Leinster and Northampton on reaching the Heineken Cup final with excellent wins last weekend. I may have missed it, but I can't recall any talk about the iniquities of the English salary cap, along the lines of last year. I wonder why.

What I did pick up was the reaction to defeat in Dublin from the Toulouse coach, Guy Noves. In acknowledging Leinster's superiority, Noves was big enough to imply that while his players had done everything in their power to win the game, they had simply come up short. Compare this to the verbal meanderings and accusatory aggression of the Real Madrid coach, Jose Mourinho, following his team's defeat by Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final. Enough said.

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