- RFU Championship heads into the play-off stages
- Clubs ready for tough promotion and relegation battles ahead
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Regular season ‘winners’ Bristol go into the play-offs as strong favourites to qualify for the semi-finals as one of the two best-placed sides from Pool A.
Liam Middleton’s men finished seven points clear at the top of the table and take three points forward into the play-offs as a result. Their record against the three other sides in the Pool is also impressive, taking 25 points out of a possible 30 from home and away games against London Welsh, Nottingham and Doncaster.
The West Country side won five out of the six games against their opponents during the regular season, doing the double over Nottingham and Doncaster and only narrowly failing to beat London Welsh at Old Deer Park. London Welsh, who contested the semi-finals in the first two years of the Championship under its current format, picked up 20 points from games against their pool opponents, while Nottingham got 14 and Doncaster zero.
London Welsh carry two points into the play-offs as a reward for finishing fourth in the regular season, Nottingham get one and Doncaster, as the lowest ranked team, start with nothing. But the Knights could give their chances of progressing further a major boost if they manage to end a three-game losing sequence and beat Director of Rugby Brett Davey’s former club Bristol at Castle Park on Friday night. London Welsh are at home to Nottingham in the other Pool A fixture taking place on the opening weekend.
Pool B contenders
In Pool B, Rotherham will fancy their chances of causing an upset and becoming the first side outside of the top four from the regular season to qualify for the RFU Championship semi-finals. The Titans finished in seventh place in Stage 1, which means they fail to carry any points forward into the play-offs.
However Andre Bester’s men seem to reserve their best form for games against fellow promotion contenders, claiming an impressive 65 per cent of their overall total points tally against top eight rivals – better than Bristol (61 per cent), Leeds (55 per cent), London Welsh (52 per cent), Cornish Pirates (51per cent), Bedford (46 per cent) and Nottingham and Doncaster (both 42 per cent).
The Titans, however, would arguably have been better off as the lowest ranked team in Pool A rather than Pool B, as their record against Bristol, London Welsh and Nottingham stacks up more favourably than their head-to-head stats against fellow Pool B sides Bedford, Cornish Pirates and Leeds. Leeds (18) top the standings in that respect followed by Bedford (17), Cornish Pirates (15) and Rotherham (12).
Leeds beat Bedford home and away during the regular season and chalked up home wins against the Pirates and Rotherham, who they meet at Headingley on Sunday March 18 in a Yorkshire derby televised live by Sky. But their opening game away to the Pirates threatens to set the tone for their entire play-off campaign and Diccon Edwards’ men will be looking for a much improved performance from the one when they last visited the Duchy: a 52-10 defeat on 24 September.
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Esher go into the Pool C relegation play-offs having carried fewer points over than their rivals from Stage 1. London Scottish, Moseley and Plymouth won six games during the regular season and are rewarded with six play-points as a result, while Esher start with four points. But three of those four victories came on consecutive weekends in the final few weeks of the regular season, meaning Mike Schmid’s men go into the battle for survival with plenty of momentum behind them.
Psychologically they might also have the upper hand as two of those victories came against relegation rivals London Scottish and Plymouth. London Scottish are in the best position in terms of the head-to-head standings from the regular season. The Exiles claimed 19 points out of a possible 30 in home and away games against Moseley, Plymouth and Esher, while Moseley picked up 15, Plymouth 14 and Esher just 9.
Home form would appear to be key to Plymouth’s chance of staying up with each of their three wins against their Pool C rivals during the regular season coming at ‘fortress’ Brickfields.
All six of their wins throughout the course of 22 rounds of action came at home, meaning it is vital that they kick off with a victory against Esher when the Surrey side visits on March 16. First up though, Albion have a trip to Moseley to negotiate while the other game on the opening weekend in Pool C sees Esher entertain London Scottish.