At the risk of upsetting Leeds Carnegie fans who still regard him as a cult figure in their history, Mark Regan is unequivocal when it comes to naming his tip for promotion to the Premiership is.
“Bristol,” he says, his West Country accent betraying his allegiances.
“They’re the best resourced team in the division and although Leeds have a young, hungry team, this may be a year too early for them.”
Regan’s words echo the majority view of all those with an interest in what has been the most open Championship promotion race in recent memory.
With no outstanding team restoring pride after a horrendous year in the Premiership – as has been the case with Newcastle, Northampton and even Leeds in recent years – the one available admission ticket into the elite tier has produced an enthralling, often mad, scramble.
Bristol, London Welsh and even Rotherham Titans have at one time or another held top spot.
Only Leeds have yet to sample the rarified air of the summit, yet they have been forever entrenched in a top four that has left the rest playing for scraps.
Rotherham remain the outsiders when the play-offs begin in May, but there looks little to choose between Bristol, London Welsh and Leeds.
When it comes to the crunch though, Regan – who represented his home town of Bristol more than 100 times between 1991 and 97, and Leeds on 69 occasions between 2002 and 05 – knows the deciding factor could be money.
“I just think Bristol because they have the finances in place,” continues Regan.
“Not only for next season, for which they’re already recruiting heavily, but also for the here and now. They have the wealthy backer who can just sanction a loan transfer at the drop of a hat.
“If Andy Robinson (Bristol’s director of rugby) wants a loan player to come in and bolster his squad, he just has to make a call in an evening and the guy’s in training the following day.
“Leeds are doing it differently, but they’ve got some wise old heads up there in Paul Caddick, Gary Hetherington and Sir Ian McGeechan.”
While this season is not exactly promotion or bust for Bristol, their need to return to the top flight is more urgent than that of Leeds, who are steadily building towards what they hope – as Yorkshire Carnegie from next season – will be a stronger fist of sustainable Premiership rugby.
Regan was in the stands at the Memorial Ground on December 1 when Leeds shocked the hosts with one of their finest displays of an already impressive season.
Head coach James Lowes has taken a Headingley team full of promise and given them the belief that they can go all the way this year.
They sit six points behind tomorrow’s visitors Bristol, knowing that the completion of the double over their promotion rivals would rekindle their hopes of clinching top spot for the play-off semi-finals.
“I think top spot is important to all the teams ahead of the play-offs,” says Regan, who now watches most games from the comfort of an executive box after going into the business world following the end of his playing career in 2009.
“Bristol would be favourites to clinch it. We’ve got Ealing to come at home and also have to play London Welsh again, as well as Leeds, so it’s in our own hands.
“Whoever finishes top has a psychological advantage.”
From his position behind the glass windows of hospitality, Regan has noted a sea change in Bristol’s approach to games that might give Lowes a weakness to exploit.
“They’ve changed their tactics noticably in recent weeks,” says Regan, who was part of England’s World Cup-winning squad of 2003 during his time at Leeds.
“At the start of the season, they were chasing bonus-point victories every week.
“Now they’re just concentrating on getting the win and giving their kicker a bit more practice before the play-offs, when games won’t be so open and he might be leaned on a little more.”
Whether they stick to their new principle or not, Lowes is expecting a relentless attacking assault from Bristol at Headingley tomorrow.
The Leeds head coach said: “We know them well, they’re a very good attacking side, they’ve proven that throughout the season and they don’t let you off the hook.
“Whereas tradition says more often than not teams in a position to kick penalties will kick them, but these challenge you.
“They try to score tries, so you’ve got to be really good without ball in hand and limit the time they spend with the ball in hand.
“They’re a real threat but we enjoy the challenges of that and we enjoy playing Bristol.”