One of the complaints about the current structure of the Championship season is that the presence of play-offs effectively negates what has gone in the six months before.
Clubs wonder why they should lavish what little money they have on paying for a player between August and December when they can get an equally good one before the transfer window shuts in January. Just in time for the play-offs.
And spectators ask why they should part with their hard-earned when the 22-game regular campaign is little more than a glorified pre-season – and their clubs treat it as such.
“We’ll turn up for the ones that matter,” they reason.
Even commentators become a little blasé, especially given the fact they wouldn’t have needed the services of a soothsayer nor recourse to tea leaves and entrails to have predicted events would unfold as they have.
Which leaves us with the current situation. This Sunday, Birmingham & Solihull and Moseley go head to head for the sixth time in two seasons with the possibility the hosts will lose their second tier status.
The latest encounter, which takes place at Damson Park this weekend, will see Bees relegated if they fail to win – and even victory might not be enough.
That would leave them needing to beat Esher on Saturday week and hoping Moseley lose to Plymouth.
All of which is based on the assumption all the bonus points go Bees’ way and very few to their local rivals. Improbable, but not impossible.
As a result we are left with the dawning reality that by the end of the month the West Midlands will have one Championship team rather than the three it boasted less than a year ago. Quelle surprise, who’da thunk it?
So, let us analyse the big showdown.
What’s at stake?
Which ever club goes down – and it might yet be Esher if they are defeated in their final two games – will lose more than £300,000 in central funding. That’s the vast bulk of their £0.5m playing budget.
But the financial hit wouldn’t end there. Sponsors and corporate box and season ticket holders could reasonably balk at paying the same rates for a less high profile product.
And without someone to underwrite those losses there would be a mass exodus of players. One Moseley player recently estimated a squad turnover of around 95 per cent.
That would leave the relegated club having to fish around for part-time players and trying to build a squad on the hoof in a division inhabited by experienced campaigners and ambitious upstarts, many of whom have dual registration agreements with Premiership clubs.
Of the two sides Bees came into the play-offs with more impetus. The 27-20 defeat by Worcester had given them real cause for optimism and earned generous praise from Warriors’ boss Richard Hill.
Defensively Bees were good, they held their own in the collisions and were dominant in the scrum. Where ever you looked in the side, there were reasons for confidence.
However, those reasons don’t seem quite so numerous now. Leo Halavatau has been penalised out of the team, Russell Earnshaw’s shoulder has popped out, Mark Woodrow has just produced one of his worst displays in a Bees shirt and keystone centre Sam Cox is injured.
Back to back defeats against Plymouth have left them bottom of the table and seven points adrift.
Therefore, in just three weeks Bees have gone from the euphoria of beating Moseley with a last minute try to facing the ignominy of being relegated by their local rivals.
Moseley have travelled in the opposite direction. A terrible defeat in the British & Irish Cup quarter-final at Sixways had left them with a standing start. They stalled at Brickfields and went into reverse against Bees in round two.
However, the sleepy old mutt finally snapped back and turned over previously unbeaten Esher home and away. The reawakening of Terry Sigley, Chevvy Pennycook and Andy Reay has put them within touching distance of safety.
They have leapt to the top of the try scoring charts with 12 in four games – two of which have produced four-score bonus points after they had only managed two all season.
What they said at the start of the play-offs
Russell Earnshaw: Asked to comment on his side’s mental fortitude Earnshaw had been buoyed by positive performances against Llandovery and Worcester and victory over Rotherham: “If last season was zero and perfect is ten, we are near ten,” he said. “We have learned a lot in the last few weeks. We have so many guys who have captained sides in our squad.”
Ian Smith: Asked the same question the former Scotland international, never one for Churchillian rhetoric at the best of times, kept things on an even – almost subterranean – keel: “The boys are very calm and objective,” he noted.
“This time last year we had missed out on the top eight but we have known where are going to be for quite a while this time and we have been able to condition the players as best as possible.”
What they said this week
Russell Earnshaw: The player-coach’s early confidence has been replaced by growing anxiety: “It is no one else’s fault than our own that I am spending my Saturdays watching Twitter to see how Esher and Moseley are getting on.
“We had numerous opportunities to score tries against Esher and we had numerous opportunities to score tries against Plymouth – but we did not take them. Instead we decided to give away a couple of tries, we have only got ourselves to blame.
“There’s no point talking about what Esher, Moseley or Plymouth have done because we’ve had the chances.”
Ian Smith: Basking in the after glow of a 27-22 win at Esher and the satisfaction of a job well done, the head coach’s tune has changed considerably: “The back row went well again, the front five and scrum was dominant, the lineout was OK and I thought we kicked a lot better today.
“It’s not a case of throwing the ball around and putting pressure on yourself. We do move the ball around a little bit and in the first half I thought we were very intelligent with it.”
Hunters or Hunted?
Bees’ England Sevens wing Simon Hunt has emerged as the lead character in his last three Birmingham derbies.
The 29-year-old has scored eight tries in those contests including consecutive hat-tricks, the most recent in the final seconds of a 38-34 play-off victory last month.
Moseley have been totally unable to stop Hunt – despite claiming to have spent time in training defending the set plays in which he prospers.
Jump out of the line and you’re embarrassed, back off him and he’ll go round you. For some reason a Moseley shirt is a Red and Black rag to this bull.
Beware Das Boot
He might be playing out of position on the wing and poorly matched against Hunt but Moseley’s Ollie Thomas has his own way of downing Bees.
The flyweight fly-half kicks with the power of a juiced-up mule and the accuracy of a laser-guided missile and, having started the play-offs in average form, he’s come into his own.
Thomas’ return was disappointing against Plymouth and Bees with just 16 points and seven successes from 12 attempts and his percentage didn’t really justify playing him.
However, in the last two matches he has booted 33 points at a ratio of 81.25%, figures that skew the calculations in his favour.
Throw his match-winning touchline conversion at Damson Park, his 52 metre drop goal at Billesley Common and his increasingly assured positional kicking into the mix and we have a young man Bees need to watch.
Especially given the fact they have been kicked to death by Plymouth’s Alex Davies in the last fortnight. The Albion No 10 landed nine penalties as he made Bees pay for every indiscretion.
It is remarkable how the moods in the respective camps have changed since the sides met at Billesley Common on March 19. Hunt’s winner left Moseley bottom of the table and hot favourites for the drop.
The roles have been reversed in the last fortnight and it is the Red and Blacks who have the momentum – but there is still a third of the campaign to go and it would be foolish to rule out a twist.
Bees should have beaten Moseley at Damson Park in October and did beat them the last time they played – clearly they can do it again.
That would leave Moseley needing a result against Plymouth on the final day and they have not beaten Albion in three attempts this season.
But then Esher will do well to win at Plymouth this weekend and who’s to say they will definitely beat Bees?
The current indications are that Bees will be the ones left standing when the music stops. But as we’ve seen in the last couple of years, indicators change.