Loose Pass

Date published: April 18 2017

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with ring-fencing in the Premiership and a certain squad announcement…

They’ll be back…

So Bristol’s goose was finally cooked on Sunday. Another home game, another admirable performance, but another defeat to a team that simply had too much class and battle-hard belligerence.

Bristol’s season and stay in the top flight this time will surely be remembered for the latter part of the season over the early one, but it won’t make a difference. With London Irish looking nigh on invincible, it would be a waste of time for the west country locals to consider a last-minute reprieve on the basis of the ground inspection police.

But Bristol have looked close to being strong enough at many times this season, and the signing of four internationals ahead of the next one (among others), despite the prospect of Championship rugby only, makes them near-certs to rejoin the elite at the end of next season. The removal of the play-off system for deciding promotion would make their recruitment ahead of the return to the Premiership that much more effective.

Which has to start giving cause for thought to the suits. There are 12 Premiership clubs right now, with London Irish and Yorkshire Carnegie both very much in a position both financially and in terms of facilities to compete.

This column has not always been an advocate of ring-fencing. It does threaten competitive integrity for ambitious young clubs in leagues below and it does make investment in such clubs much less appetizing.

But in the current situation we are faced with at least two significant and functioning elite clubs in England struggling for certainty at least every other season, while the promotion-relegation situation is becoming something of a procession. Would it hurt English rugby to expand the Premiership to 14 teams and scrap the ups and downs?

The last-minute heroes

There’s no smoke without fire, and the rumours and headlines writ large on Tuesday morning surrounding the possible omission of Joe Launchbury and Jonathan Joseph, as well as a few others from England’s Six Nations-winning side are likely to be proved true on Wednesday.

Launchbury could feel particularly aggrieved if they are. He’s been one of England’s standout players over the past three years in terms of work-rate and physicality, aspects Warren Gatland places huge stock in. The omission of Joseph might be more understandable given Gatland’s preference for direct and physical running; Joseph is a more artful player than that.

But this year’s squad, likely to be 36 in number, will feature many such omissions and there will be many hard done-by players. It’s the nature of the beast.

In Launchbury’s case particularly, you can also see a huge chance for redemption. Injuries will strike on this tour at the end of a brutally long season and Launchbury, if not picked, is surely one of those players who will be quietly asked to make sure he keeps match fit. He is the kind of guy who would do so as well.

Remember Ryan Jones’ impact in 2005? Alex Corbisiero in 2013? Back Launchbury to do the same. He is a vastly under-rated player.

Timing?

As much as we’re aware that picking a Lions squad needs to be done early, we do find it a little odd that it should be done before the European semi-finals at the weekend.

In Saracens, Munster and Leinster there must be around 20 tour possibles at least, some maybe going up against each other, some needing one more shot at proving their form and big-match temperament.

Fun though some of the rugby has been over the past month since the Six Nations, the European occasions are where the Test performers sort themselves out from the very good club ones, where matches are frequently played at Test intensity and speed.

A strange piece of timing indeed.

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens

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