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'Real shame': 3 Prem coaches on cancelled promotion and bye-weeks

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

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This past week radically changed the outlook of the upcoming 2022/23 Gallagher Premiership season. The RFU decided that neither Doncaster Knights nor Ealing Trailfinders had the necessary facilities to be promoted from the Championship at the end of this season if they are crowned champions and with no one coming up, the top flight in England next term is set to again have bye-weeks – two weeks in the season where each of the 13 clubs currently involved doesn’t have games to play.

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Bye-weeks were an invention that came into play for the first this year when it was decided due to the pandemic not to relegate the bottom club in the twelve-team 2020/21 Premiership. With Worcester getting off the hook and retaining their top-tier status, the number of participants instead increased to 13 with Championship title winners Saracens promoted.

The numerical imbalance has resulted in a skewed league table that won’t balance itself out until the end of the campaign in terms of the number of games each team has played. What have the Premiership clubs made of having bye-weeks this term and what are their thoughts on the prospect of doing it all again next season now that promotion has been cancelled for the title-challenging Knights and the Trailfinders?

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RugbyPass canvassed the thoughts of three Premiership directors of rugby, two of whom have recent experiences of coaching their clubs in the Championship and winning the second-tier title to get back into the top flight:

ALEX SANDERSON – SALE SHARKS
“I’d love there to be another team who can come up and compete if there was. It’s more jobs, innit. I love a week off, don’t get me wrong. I could do with a week off and my brother is going skiing and I’d love to be out there with him, so the bye-weeks work for us. It gives us that natural break in the season and again if there were 14 we have got a better chance of getting Sale FC into the Championship which would work in our favour as well moving forward, to have a feeder Championship team.”

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Sale’s attendance of just 4,691 for last weekend’s Premiership game at home to London Irish has been mentioned in the debate over Doncaster and Ealing getting excluded for not having a facility that caters for 10,001. Is it a valid criticism of the Sharks, that their attendances at times are so low and comparable to the Championship’s leading clubs?

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“Fair (criticism) but that is what we are trying to build here, we’re trying to build something that is sustainable, a sustainable business that has got a good buzz around it and in equal measure, you can refer to the atmosphere at the Leicester game, packed out and we had flames, DJs and stuff. We’re not there yet, we know that. Maybe that is a better question to pose to Sid Sutton, our CEO. That is his job. I have got to win, he has got to fill the seats.”

PAT LAM – BRISTOL BEARS
“It’s disappointing. We were all looking forward to a team coming up and making it 14 but it’s like everything, you understand that things are in place, that rules are in place and you don’t make the criteria. As far as that goes that is disappointing. It is a great competition going on at the moment and it would be good to have another one up here because it’s what makes this game great.

“You hear many stories of who has come up, including Bristol themselves after going down, but ultimately, like anything, any sport, any part of life, once there is criteria you have to meet that first. I know a few guys who want to buy houses and stuff but they have to meet criteria with their mortgage brokers, with the banks to get the mortgage. It’s unfortunate but it is understandable.

“We had Covid, had to play midweek games. Is it ideal (now having bye-weeks)? You can go ‘poor us’ or you can say ‘this is what we face, let’s go’. It’s like people say you are going to miss your internationals. Well, we know Six Nations is on, we know November internationals and know when the World Cup is coming up so you plan. With bye-weeks, we know and you make the most of it and then you have 14 teams, great, whatever it is. It all comes back to mindset and preparation.”

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MARK McCALL – SARACENS
“I am just off the training field now, that is news to me (about Doncaster and Ealing). I didn’t know that that decision had been taken and I don’t want to jump in and say something, but what I have always felt is that if a club has the resources and the ambition and deserves to get into the Premiership that should never be stopped. The case of Exeter back in the day ten years ago just shows you what is capable. I don’t know the reasons why. It’s probably facility-based and that is a real shame to hear that.

“We have two slightly different bye-weeks. The first one came in week two, which wasn’t the greatest thing for us but we used it as a training week. This time around I think we had played seven or eight games in a row and it came at quite a good time for us just to give players a bit of downtime. Obviously, our squad has been stretched with international call ups and injuries and we have asked a lot of the players who have played over the last four weeks, so to be able to give them a bit of a rest last week wasn’t the worst thing in the world.”

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