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Alex Spink: Why Bristol’s play-off heartache must not be allowed to happen again

08 Jun | BY Betway | MIN READ TIME |
Alex Spink: Why Bristol’s play-off heartache must not be allowed to happen again

Current system of promotion from Championship the only downer on a magnificent club rugby season

SECONDS after Dylan Hartley was handed a ban which would cost him his World Cup dream, a real injustice occurred.

As confirmation was being given of the England star’s four-week suspension for head-butting a rival hooker, Bristol coughed up promotion to the Aviva Premiership.

It went unnoticed outside of the West Country as the media focused heavily on Hartley and the price he would pay for his foolishness.

But that last-gasp try scored by Worcester at Sixways meant that for the fourth time in six years Bristol finished top of the Championship and failed to go up.

The memory of Chris Pennell’s score and Ryan Lamb’s ice-cool conversion, which forced a draw on the night and one-point aggregate win for Worcester over two legs, is still causing sleepless nights for Bristolians.

“Incredibly cruel,” was the verdict of club chairman Chris Booy. “Our whole season comes down to one point. We’ve always been against the system. It should be first past the post.”

The fact of the matter is that the Championship operates a play-off system with no automatic promotion and Worcester played that system and came out on top.

But boy does Booy make a good point. It is a nonsense that a team which finishes top, having lost just once all season (and beaten Worcester home and away), should not be rewarded with a place in the top flight.

To win the league and not get promoted is fundamentally wrong. As wrong as finishing last and not being relegated.

This has been a fantastic domestic season, the best some of us can remember. 2014/15 was supposed to be all about the European Champions Cup, a new-look version of the Heineken Cup – more elite and thus, supposedly, superior in every regard.

Europe was decent, don’t get me wrong, but it didn’t leave the Aviva Premiership for dead. Quite the contrary in fact. English rugby’s top-flight closed the gap, in terms of thrills, spills and quality of rugby.

The Premiership play-off race went to the final minutes of the final round of matches, Saracens pipping Exeter to the fourth and final play-off slot only on points difference. They then proceeded to beat holders Northampton and Bath and become worthy champions.

We are left with memories of Sarries’ ruthless efficiency, Bath’s fearless back play, Leicester’s never-say-die spirit (despite being unable to buy a try), Northampton’s early-season power, Newcastle’s resurgence and, surely most remarkable of all, Wasps’ rise from the financial ashes to turn a move to Coventry born of desperation into a triumph on and off the park.

The sport goes from strength to strength and its progress will only be accelerated by a home World Cup this autumn.

But as the curtain falls on the campaign I am left with two wishes. One, that the blazers see sense and restore first-past-the-post in the Championship. Two, that those same administrators keep their mitts off the Premiership.

A blinkered, if highly influential, minority believe the way forward for top-level English club rugby is to operate a closed shop by abandoning relegation. The rest of us oppose it with every ounce of our being.

Seal the division and it will stagnate. The product will suffer, interest will decline.

Sport without jeopardy lacks meaning. Don’t believe those who tell you otherwise. So I say: keep relegation in place and reward the champions of the second tier. Not for the sake of Bristol, but the whole Game.

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