It may not be the most enjoyable experience for the fans of the clubs currently engaging in it, but for the second year in a row, the relegation battle at the bottom of the Gallagher Premiership is proving to be a salivating spectacle.
Even though Saracens currently sit in 12th with minus seven points and are a sizable 18 points off of safety, few are countenancing their possible relegation. Their form, strength of squad and past seasons’ points totals all suggest that they will find themselves clear of the danger come the end of the season.
That leaves what looks to be shaping up as a three-horse race to avoid the drop at the bottom, although there is still plenty of time for further teams to be added to that mix, as the Premiership clubs, outside of Saracens, Exeter Chiefs and Northampton Saints, struggle for consistent wins in what has become a fascinatingly competitive tournament.
As stands, the three teams in the mix are Leicester Tigers, Wasps and London Irish. Tigers have just 11 points after eight rounds of rugby, and that’s only due to the bonus point win over Bristol Bears this past weekend, whilst both Wasps and London Irish lost at home to the high-flying pair of Northampton and Exeter respectively.
If Leicester can use that win over Bristol as a catalyst for improved fortunes, or perhaps it was the draw that was earned at Twickenham the week previous that was the real turning point, then the relegation battle could well surpass the title race as the most exciting facet of this season.
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Watch: Michael Fatialofa remains in specialist hospital following injury
The back row is beginning to fire as Jordan Taufua settles in, something which will only be compounded when the club can get Hanro Liebenberg in there alongside him, and Telusa Veainu is beginning to show flashes of the pre-injury form that had him labelled as one of the most compelling watches in the competition.
Perhaps the key element to that win, however, was the form of the club’s contingent of England internationals. Jonny May, Ellis Genge, Ben Youngs, George Ford and Dan Cole all looked effective and up for the fight, and that quintet make up such a vital core of the Leicester squad that Geordan Murphy will need all five of them to be firing for the remainder of the season if he is to safely navigate Tigers away from the bottom.
It would be a shame to see such an iconic club as Leicester relegated, though the same was said of Harlequins and Northampton not too long ago, and both of those sides came back better after an eye-opening stint in the Greene King IPA Championship. If Leicester continue to play like they did against Bristol, that is very unlikely to be the case come May.
You won't find people with a story as interesting as this very often…
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 5, 2020
Then there’s Wasps, who for all money looked as though they might give themselves some welcome breathing room on Sunday, only for a late Taqele Naiyaravoro try to sink them at the Ricoh Arena. With Northampton having been reduced to 13 men in the dying minutes and Wasps enjoying the lead on the scoreboard, it was representative of their season.
Having lost a number of key players in the summer, the club has struggled to replicate their performances on the pitch with those of the players that were signed to fill the void. The return of Jimmy Gopperth certainly promises hope and his class was evident on Sunday, even as the Coventry-based outfit fell to their sixth defeat of the young Premiership season.
The club have a real battle on their hands for the remainder of this campaign, as their high turnover in playing personnel in recent seasons certainly seems to have hindered them. The last time Wasps were threatened with relegation, they turned to young talents such as Elliot Daly, Christian Wade and Billy Vunipola for salvation, so it will be interesting to see how much the likes of Tom Willis, Alfie Barbeary and Will Porter are used, as the club seeks to form a new core of homegrown senior players.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 6, 2020
Finally, we come to Irish. After an extremely bright start to the season, the Exiles’ fortunes have diminished of late and the defeat to Exeter is their third-straight loss in the competition. One of the preseason favourites for the drop, Irish now truly find themselves in the scrap for survival.
The 36-11 win over Leicester in November is beginning to feel a long time ago for Irish fans and Tigers currently sit just two points behind the London side. Having reportedly discarded the EQP quota this season in order to field as strong a squad as possible and push for survival, there will be concern at the diminishing return in results that they have been able to produce over the last two months.
It was always going to be a challenge for Irish to stay up, despite the heavy investment they made in the playing squad over the summer, and the sooner they can get Waisake Naholo and Ben Loader back together and in the starting XV, the better off they’ll be. Just as Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti previously did for Newcastle Falcons, and Josh Adams and Bryce Heem provided for Worcester Warriors, the presence of two clinical wingers can do wonders for turning around an ailing team’s performances.
There is a significant ’10-pointer’ coming up in February, as Leicester, shorn of their England internationals, host Wasps at Welford Road. Two rounds later, Irish also host Wasps, as the Guinness Six Nations period is shaping up to be very influential in ultimately deciding who faces the drop at the season’s end.
That all said, Worcester’s 62-5 humbling at the hands of Saracens this weekend will do them no good at all and it would not be surprising to see the West Midlands club sucked into the contest. Saracens away is arguably the toughest fixture they will face all season, although that was a defeat, not only on the scoreboard but also in the contrast of ability on the pitch, that was monumentally stark.
Quins and Bath are coming off of a couple of rounds of below par performances and results and now look possibilities to slide back, though prior to Round 7 they had been beginning to put together some momentum and points.
Worcester lock Michael Fatialofa is to spend a second night in hospital. Our thoughts are with him and his family. https://t.co/XE8BrQnfZG
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 5, 2020
From there on up, teams begin to look a lot safer. Bristol Bears will not suffer through the international call-ups in the Six Nations that a number of other teams will and the same is true of Gloucester and Sale Sharks. Exeter and Northampton aren’t in the conversation, as their domestic fortunes continue to prosper in the absence of Saracens in the upper echelons of the table.
It would be a shame if in the seasons to come this element of the Premiership were removed from the league, with renewed calls for ringfencing following the investment by CVC Capital Partners. For all the travails faced by the Guinness PRO14, the desire to remove relegation from the Premiership, thus eradicating one of the few things that truly separates the two competitions, seems an odd move.
There’s no getting away from how dull the second half of the Super Rugby season can become, either, especially in the bottom half of the log where teams are scrapping it out for nothing more than pride.
As stands, the relegation battle is putting bums on seats in stadiums and gluing eyes to BT Sport, as fans of the competition are once again treated to a delightfully difficult to call contest at the bottom of the table, with real consequences and challenges for the team that ultimately loses it.
This is what makes the Premiership and the Top 14 the enviable competitions that they are.
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