Former England hooker Andy Titterrell believes the wide-open nature of this season’s Championship play-off semi-finals underlines the growing strength of English rugby union’s second tier.
Two of Titterrell’s former clubs, Leeds Carnegie and London Welsh, meet in the first leg of the second semi-final at Headingley tomorrow, after Rotherham Titans kick-off the action at Bristol this afternoon.
Bristol may have won the regular season but the general consensus is there is little to choose between the four teams vying for promotion to the Premiership.
If he had his way, 33-year-old Titterrell would be lacing up the boots and taking to the field in Welsh colours tomorrow, had doctors not told him in February that a prolapsed disc in his back meant his scrummaging days were over.
So Titterrell, a five-time England forward and one-time British and Irish Lions tourist, has to make do with the role of outside observer.
And the Leeds versus Welsh tie has piqued his interest.
“I think this tie would make a cracking final,” said Titterrell, who joined Welsh last summer before retirement was forced on him.
“I know Leeds well after spending a good couple of years up there and I still speak to some of the boys now.
“Welsh are the best team up front and their set-piece can be very strong. They have very experienced backs.
“Then there’s Leeds who can play a tight game for 80 minutes but possess backs that are electric. They, for me, make up the best unit in the division.
“Leeds are the only team that can score from their own tryline. That’s what makes them so dangerous.
“Both go into the semi-finals on form with a strong bill of health, which is exactly what you want at this stage of the season.
“It’s a mix of a team that can blow you away like Leeds can, and one that can grind you down, like Welsh do, and as they did when the two sides last met at Headingley.”
Welsh defeated Leeds on both occasions in the regular season with the 31-24 win at Headingley on November 3 one of the last acts of Titterrell’s stellar career.
“We were fortunate because we could have found ourselves a long way behind,” said Titterrell, who won the Premiership with Sale in 2005-06.
“But Welsh are a team that play for 85, 90 minutes.
“That was the first time this season Welsh’s scrum came under any real pressure, and we actually gave up our first penalty try of the campaign that day.
“So Leeds will be looking to prove a point up front again.
“They’ll give Welsh a fair bit of trouble with the likes of Ben Harris in the front row, and Phil Nilsen at hooker.
“If Leeds can match Welsh for the whole 80 minutes, then they can beat them.”
Titterrell was named Leeds Carnegie captain following their relegation from the Premiership three years ago. He left to rejoin local club Sale before his career took him north of the border to Edinburgh.
What he found when he returned to the Championship with Welsh last summer was a much stronger second tier.
“There was a massive gulf three years ago between the two divisions in terms of physicality, fitness levels, attributes and mentality,” said Titterrell, who joined Carnegie in 2010 after a short-lived move to Gloucester.
“Having been part of it this year and seen Leeds, Bristol and Rotherham – on a shoestring budget – it has been a far more competitive league and the gap has narrowed.
“It’s become a better platform for players and clubs going into the Premiership. There’s no reason why from next year on, every team in that Championship shouldn’t be full-time professionals.”
Titterrell hopes to be involved in the division next season, if a position does not open up in the Premiership. Enforced retirement hit him hard, especially coming in the middle of the season when there is little market place for chewed-up former professionals.
So Titterrell is remodelling himself as a strength and conditioning coach, and is willing to work anywhere.
“It’s been difficult, to be honest,” he said of retirement.
“I’ve struggled without the routine, without being around the players.
“I’m missing the build-up to the games and I even struggle to watch rugby on television.
“I’m trying to get back into the game but it’s just not the season to be doing that.
“Because clubs are right in the thick of things, it’s hard to find something.
“So it’s been tough, but I hope something will come up.
“It’s about being persistent and also being patient.
“I did a fair amount of coaching while I was still playing. I’m looking at getting into the strength and conditioning, how you apply that with skill-sets – that’s how I want to package myself.
“I don’t see the point in getting players to run through certain drills and then not being able to apply them on the field in a match. It’s about marrying the two elements.”