The Rugby Football Union’s Darwinian policy of eradicating the weak reaches the beginning of the end for one unfortunate club this weekend as the Championship relegation play-offs kick-off.
For the second year running Moseley, Plymouth and Esher find their tier two status up for negotiation over a six-game mini-season and all three will be hoping for a similar outcome to last term when they ganged up on the doomed Birmingham & Solihull.
However, this season the troubled trio are joined by London Scottish who, despite having made a pretty decent fist of their first campaign back at level two, now find themselves in the manure.
But make no mistake the Exiles are no Birmingham & Solihull, or indeed Coventry, and the common consensus is that for the first time in the play-off format’s three years, Pool C does not contain a dead man walking. Not yet anyway.
All four contestants can make very strong arguments against having their business and sporting plans effectively torn to pieces by relegation to National One but – rightly or wrongly – the governing body remain intent on weaning the bottom feeders off the central funding breast. Those who glide the corridors of power at Twickenham will no doubt be jumping with joy to see self-sufficient Jersey waiting in the wings.
This, though, is not the moment to rail against the inequity of a system that has allowed to Esher bumble their way through six months only to peak in the final two and seriously threaten those who have at least flirted with consistency if not actually taken her phone number or extracted a commitment to a second date.
No, instead Messrs Maggs, Amor and Saumi must first negotiate their way across the minefield – and then let the RFU have both barrels. Metaphorically speaking.
What’s at stake?
Championship rugby and the more than £330,000 of RFU funding that for some clubs forms the vast majority of their playing budget and without which their current squads would look very, very different.
For the last two seasons relegation to the third tier has prompted an existential crisis at Bees and Coventry, who have both struggled to make the switch from semi-professional to practically amateur, locally-based players. It is not a fate any of the four endangered clubs wish to embrace.
Who’s got the least to worry about?
Scottish, Moseley and Plymouth all won six regular season matches out of 22, while Esher won their last three to take their total to a princely four.
In terms of momentum Mike Schmid’s side have plenty although those final three victories came in a home local derby with the Exiles, against a weakened Leeds side and at home to Plymouth.
If any pointers can be taken from the first part of the season, Esher’s 41-17 hammering of Albion on the final day might have an ominous look to those of a Devonian persuasion. Then again Albion have always had something of a ‘don’t bet against us’ mentality.
Scottish have a massive pack superbly marshalled by their experienced player-coach Simon Amor at scrum-half and some dangerous runners in the backs. They will be a fearsome prospect.
What do we know about six-game play-offs?
Don’t panic. Every pre-play-off interview betrays a naked obsession with ‘starting well’ and ‘winning your home matches’, it should not be assumed though this is the only route to safety.
Moseley like to make their supporters fret. In their two successful play-off campaigns they have never won their first match, nor even their second. Indeed in 2010 they lost their first three before going to unbeaten Rotherham and winning away.
And the last two runnings have revealed home advantage to be something of a fallacy. Of the 24 relegation play-off matches that have been played in the last two years, 13 have been won by the away side. And momentum isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either. In 2010 Coventry won their third and fourth matches and still went down . Twelve months ago Bees won their second but couldn’t build on it
?Next Page: Moseley's chances, the key players and the opposition >
What do we think of Moseley?
Kevin Maggs was gifted a similar-sized financial pie to the one enjoyed by Ian Smith and chose to slice it differently. Out when the preoccupation with the tight five and in came a bit of love for the centres. From the ex-Ireland centre.
Maggs has relied on a mobile pack and a balanced midfield in which Andy Reay and Greg King have been outstanding and at times they have done a passable impression of the Harlem Globetrotters.
What has evolved is a playing style one hundred-times more attractive to watch and enjoyable to play in than in previous years. Having chosen to live by the sword Moseley have also felt its blade but in decent conditions they have the cutting edge to do well.
Who are their key players?
Michael Ellery has scored some breathtaking tries and been a massive threat out wide with his blistering pace. He needs to impose himself over the next few weeks and not wait for play to reach him.
Reay’s renaissance started this time last year when he was made captain and but for the odd injury – and an audience with IRB Young Player of the Year George Ford – that has continued. He is vital to his team.
What do Moseley say about their rivals?
Reay sees Esher as the group’s dark horse after they found some late form. “We have beaten them twice but they are one of the most dangerous,” the centre says.
“When we played them they certainly had a lot of injuries and in the last couple of games they have had some good results and they have got a lot of lads back.
“They are going to be the danger side because we have beaten them twice this year we have got to get rid of the complacency because they are going to be a totally different team.”
Scrum-half Sam Brown feels the victory over Plymouth in a New Year mudbath will have given his side an edge.
“Psychologically I think it will have a bearing, if you have beaten a team and then you play them again you feel as though you have got one up on them. When the ground is a bit drier we will stand a much better chance of beating them than we did (in January).”
Reay is more circumspect: “It’s going to be a big slog, a real dog fight.”
And Reay knows the battle with Scottish will be won and lost up front.
“They are well-drilled. Our set-piece is going to have to be good against them, that’s where we have struggled in the past.
“We are going to have to get that spot on. Their pack did a number on us, their scrum and lineout really dominated ours. But we’ve improved in both areas recently, certainly in the scrum.”
Regular season match-ups
Moseley beat Esher twice and have now defeated them in their last four meetings but Scottish did the double over Maggs’s men.
The rubber with Plymouth was split as Mose made unforced front row changes at Brickfields and ended up conceding a penalty try in a 21-20 reverse. They avenged that defeat a month ago by winning 9-3 at Billesley Common.
What’s the common consensus?
The excellent Rolling Maul messageboard ran a poll which had Plymouth as clear favourites for the drop with 69 per cent of the 40 or so votes cast.
But the reality is, no-one knows anything for sure other than the fact it will be nerve-janglingly exciting.
Fri, March 9: Moseley v Plymouth Albion
Sat, March 10: Esher v London Scottish
Fri, March 16: Plymouth Albion v Esher
Sun, March 18: London Scottish v Moseley
Fri, March 23: Plymouth Albion v London Scottish
Sat, March 24: Moseley v Esher
Sat, March 31: Esher v Moseley
Sun, April 1: London Scottish v Plymouth Albion
Sat, April 14: Esher v Plymouth Albion, Moseley v London Scottish
Sat, April 21: Plymouth Albion v Moseley, London Scottish v Esher