Top dogs bring reality to artificial finale
PA Sport's Andrew Baldock
May 10, 2007
Play-offs might be an artificial way of deciding England's champion club - but there is something wonderfully traditional about the finale in store at Twickenham.
Love them or loathe them, whatever your view it would appear the contentious knockout system is here to stay.
Personally, I despise them. When a team finishes top of the pile after 22 games in all weathers, they are champions.
Try telling Manchester United they have got to beat fourth-placed Arsenal this weekend, then topple Chelsea or Liverpool seven days later before they can be handed the Premiership title. Someone, without doubt, would get the full Sir Alex Ferguson hairdryer treatment.
Premier Rugby, however, has landed its dream final on Saturday - Gloucester versus Leicester, the two best-supported teams in England going head-to-head at Twickenham.
Over the 22-game regular Premiership campaign, they were dominant forces, finishing level on 71 points, seven clear of third-placed Bristol.
Gloucester's number of wins - 15, compared with Tigers' 14 - edged them into top spot, and their resulting comfortable play-off semi-final victories merely confirmed a sense of dominance.
With the exception of Wasps' narrow 2004 victory over Bath, the three other Premiership play-off finals have proved hopelessly one-sided affairs.
Gloucester, having gone three weeks without a game, capitulated 39-3 to Wasps in the first one, then a planned 2005 retirement party for Tigers' England World Cup heroes Martin Johnson and Neil Back fell horribly flat when Wasps swatted them beyond recognition.
And last season, Leicester experienced another shocker, smashed 45-20 by Sale Sharks as the once-unfashionable northern club clinched a first Premiership crown.
Somehow though, 2007 promises to be a whole lot different.
Previous league meetings between the sides this season produced a gripping 27-27 draw at Welford Road in September, while Gloucester won an equally enthralling Kingsholm rematch 28-24 six months later.
On the down side, both clubs have key players missing due to injuries, with Gloucester's absentees including England trio Mike Tindall, Olly Morgan and James Forrester, and Leicester losing England scrum-half Harry Ellis and their revered Italian Test prop Martin Castrogiovanni.
But there is still more than enough talent on show - Ryan Lamb, Anthony Allen, James Simpson-Daniel, Tom Varndell, Geordan Murphy and Shane Jennings, to name six possible match-winners - that could light up Twickenham.
Perhaps better still, the atmosphere is certain to be electric.
Gloucester and Leicester are renowned for their vast support - home and away - and when those fans descend on south-west London this weekend, they will create an occasion to savour.
And this is where the traditional element enters proceedings, given both clubs' proud community-driven history.
Gloucester head coach Dean Ryan spoke in glowing terms this week about the close relationship enjoyed between the club and its followers, while Leicester's five-figure membership confirms season after season a special bond that exists at Tigers.
Both clubs are major commercial success stories - Gloucester, for instance, are currently building a sizeable new grandstand - and Leicester continue to lead the way as the Premiership's most profitable organisation.
But on the back of that, neither have lost their affinity with the supporters, who remain priorities.
In an age of corporate sport-watchers - and I am not saying the prawn sandwich brigade don't exist at Gloucester or Leicester - there is something satisfying about mingling with fans who still prefer beer and pies to red wine and vol-au-vents.
Pre-match and post-match, Kingsholm and Welford Road are hives of activity, the bars packed with what you might call real rugby fans, those who understand the game and whose opinions are always worth listening to.
And so it will be at Twickenham this weekend.
Okay, Gloucester's Shed bar and the ABC watering hole at Welford Road will be replaced by the somewhat cold, uninviting surroundings of Twickenham's concrete jungle, but I cannot imagine it will dilute the atmosphere one little bit.
As Ryan addressed the assembled media two days ago, so Gloucester flanker Andy Hazell - a home-town hero worshipped by the Cherry and Whites masses - could not find the words to describe what winning the Premiership title would mean.
The emotion in his face though, as he even contemplated such a possibility, spoke a thousand words.
While many of us would much rather see the title's destiny decided at Kingsholm or Welford Road, rather than at Twickenham in a manufactured match, the venue is largely irrelevant.
This game could take place on the moon, and all routes from the west country and east midlands would head there.
It is an occasion that no admirer of real rugby, real rugby fans and real rugby hospitality can afford to miss.
Let battle commence!
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