The relegation play-offs, otherwise known as the unofficial West Midlands Championships – or indeed Worst Midlands Championships – bursts phosphorescently into life this weekend with what is sure to be a white-hot derby between Birmingham & Solihull Bees and Moseley.
Let’s leave aside, if we can, the morally moribund logic behind the whole jamboree and pretend for a few weeks at least, that this is a normal season, notable only for the fact that through sheer coincidence the fixtures computer has managed to pitch the bottom four teams against each other.
Who can deny the grim fascination, the wondrous rubber necking possibilities of seeing Moseley, Coventry and Bees fight to the death for their places in English rugby’s second tier.
Indeed for the latter two an unsuccessful fight might quite literally result in the death of a famous rugby club.
After all, relegation is no mere change of status, it comes with more strings attached than a boxful of tangled puppets, and specifically the loss of nearly £300,000 of guaranteed funding. Are any of them healthy enough to survive that sort of financial haemorrhage?
Of course, it’s not just the Midlands trio that are involved, Rotherham have been compelled to intrude on our region’s private oval ball grief, much as they don’t want to but it is difficult to see the men from Clifton Lane finishing in last place of the four team Group of Death.
Difficult but not impossible, indeed let’s have a look at the combatants sluggish enough to get sucked into the RFU’s relegation vortex.
* MOSELEY finished 9th - P22 W10 D0 L12 F444 A543 Pts46
Why they’ll be safe – Ian Smith’s men won 45 per cent of their regular season matches, including home and away doubles against the rest of the relegation candidates and a huge victory over Bristol. They have the best front row and if Tristan Roberts is playing well an outstanding fly-half.
Why they won’t – After beating Bristol on the final day they suffered the gut-churning realisation that other results had not gone their way. They have spent six months trying not to be here, surely there will be a mental hangover now that they are. And those backs look a bit flimsy too.
They say – It’s just another sequence of games. Take the emotion out and we’re the best team.
The opposition say – There’s no way Moseley are going to beat us four times in the same season. They are predictable.
Key man – Ryan Wilson. The young No 8 is the find of the season. He needs to add tries to his energy.
* COVENTRY finished 11th - P22 W5 D1 L16 F346 A565 Pts12
Why they’ll be safe – There is absolutely no way they will lose all three games at Butts Park Arena. The Cov crowd won’t allow it and once they get behind their players, the team will be difficult to contain. Two home wins should be enough and they have the pack to get them.
Why they won’t – Everyone expects thegroup to be decided by their clashes with Bees and they are not so much better than the Silhillians that they can afford to switch off. There must be serious doubts whether they have the backs to finish off the forwards’ work.
They say – We’re improving with every game. Our set-piece is as good as anyone’s, Nathan Jones and Ben Russell have linked up well at half back and Chris Mahoney has brought much-needed stability at full back. And we’ve got a passionate crowd.
The opposition say – They should not be in the league, they can’t manage games and their discipline is dodgy, they’re more interested in fighting than football.
Key man – Ben Russell. Will it be the wise old head or the defensive and goal-kicking liability?
* BIRMINGHAM & SOLIHULL BEES finished 12th - P22 W0 D1 L21 F293 A836 Pts-9
Why they’ll be safe – They have some outstanding players, Rob Connolly and Simon Hunt would make it into any of the other teams. They are unpredictable, attacking from all angles and once the genie’s out of the bottle it won’t be easily put back in. Plus the team spirit is intoxicating and never under-estimate the Sharmans Cross Road effect.
Why they won’t – They haven’t tasted victory since April 25, 2009. They are starting on -2 points after a registration breach and while they reckon they’ve found a pack of forwards in recent weeks, their backs have stopped tackling. Bees will be extremely feisty but that’s not enough.
They say – The ground is getting harder and we’re the only team that can move the ball wide. We’re better now than ever before.
The opposition say – They shouldn’t be in the league either. They’ve got no bulk up front and don’t know how to win games.
Key man – Ben Patston. Benny the Boot better be good because Bees have been waiting for two months. He is their great white-haired hope.
Now for the chance to write my way out of a few interviews in a single article. Prediction time.
With three-quarters of the relegation group participants facing four local derbies, it is virtually impossible to say which way they’ll go.
The regular season versions were usually settled by a single score and with the stakes and tension even higher, it’s difficult to see much changing.
I can’t help but feel that Moseley have most to lose from playing Coventry and Bees twice more. I can’t see them sweeping the board in the play-offs.
They should win all three home matches and at Sharmans Cross but I expect them to lose at Butts Park and up at Rotherham.
Coventry will win their two derbies at home but lose twice to Rotherham and at Bees and Moseley.
While Bees will find that elusive first victory – but not until the penultimate round when they beat Cov at home. And by that time their two-point deduction is going to look pretty big.
Which leaves Rotherham well clear at the top, losing just once – at Billesley Common.
P W D L Pts
Rotherham 6 5 0 1 21
Moseley 6 4 0 2 16
Coventry 6 2 0 4 9
Bees 6 1 0 5 5
* Saturday, March 20: Bees v Moseley; Rotherham v Coventry
* Saturday, March 27: Coventry v Bees; Moseley v Rotherham
* Saturday, April 3: Rotherham v Bees; Coventry v Moseley
* Sunday, April 11: Bees v Rotherham
* Saturday, April 17: Rotherham v Moseley
* Sunday, April 18: Bees v Coventry
* Saturday, April 24: Moseley v Coventry
* Saturday, May 1: Moseley v Bees; Rotherham v Coventry