GK IPA Play-offs06/05/2014
This weekend's Greene King IPA Championship semi-finals involve
four former Premiership sides who are all bidding to return to the
top level of English club rugby.
In the first of the two-legged semi-finals, Bristol Rugby, regular season winners for the third time in five years, take on Rotherham Titans, who finished fourth after 23 rounds of action.
With a large and loyal fan base, an international quality coaching staff and a playing squad oozing quality throughout, Bristol Rugby regard themselves as a Premiership club in all but name. And after a five-year absence they will hope to put that right this year by winning promotion and bringing Premiership rugby back to the city, albeit at a new ground in the form of Ashton Gate.
For now though the Memorial Stadium remains their home and on Saturday, kick-off 14:45pm, the famous old ground plays host to the Titans, whose two brief dalliances with top flight rugby came over a decade ago.
Having finished the regular season 16 points clear of their Yorkshire rivals, with home and away league wins against the Titans (36-26) and (26-34) and a British & Irish Cup quarter-final victory thrown in for good measure, Bristol Rugby will be overwhelming favourites to book their place in the GK IPA Championship final.
However Rotherham go into the match as the surprise package of the season, rookie head coach Lee Blackett doing a marvellous job in steering his side into the Championship's top four by playing an attractive brand of rugby. In Newcastle-bound Juan Pablo Socino they also boast the Championship's top points-scorer, the Argentinian taking his tally for the season to 300 in the Titans' final round game against Ealing Trailfinders.
With Bristol known for their 15-man style of rugby too, Saturday's televised first leg should be an absolute cracker.
Sunday's second semi-final, again broadcast live on Sky Sports, is between Leeds Carnegie and London Welsh, kick-off 13:00 at Headingley, and sees the third-placed side from the regular season take on the runners-up.
As British & Irish Cup finalists, Leeds are on course for a league and cup double. But, regardless of how his side fares in the run-in, Leeds boss James Lowes can look back on his first full season as head coach with great satisfaction. The Rugby League legend has taken the demands of a new sport in his stride and galvanised a young and largely inexperienced squad into creditable Premiership contenders.
Leeds will no doubt take great encouragement from their involvement in last season's play-offs where they beat eventual champions Newcastle on home soil in the first leg of the 2013 semi-final. But they need to find a way to beat London Welsh first, having failed to do so in either of their two league meetings to date.
After scoring 19 unanswered points in the closing stages, Welsh recorded a 31-24 victory at Headingley on November 3, 2013. At home, on January 26, Welsh ground out a 19-10 win.
Leeds will have to be wary of London Welsh winger Nick Scott, who scored twice at Headingley and is in a rich vein of form having bagged a hat-trick of tries last time out against Nottingham.
"Leeds are a great side; they've played some really good rugby this year. When we went up to Headingley they really took it to us and we had to come back from 12 points down, but we're in the mind-set not to let that happen again," said Scott.
"It's a Championship semi-final and we can't put ourselves in the same position and hope to claw it back.
"We need to take the lessons learnt from last time. We know they're a very good team and we know what they'll bring to the table - some very good attacking rugby.
"But we're getting better all the time, we're confident in ourselves and we've a good group of individuals.
"Everything's building to the play-offs and we're going to try and hit the ground running and go hard."
Bristol Rugby vs. Rotherham Titans, Saturday May 10, KO 1445
Leeds Carnegie v London Welsh, Sunday May 11, KO 1300
All matches live on Sky Sports HD.