It all comes down to this then. After 11 rounds of league action just two teams remain and as expected it’s Ealing against Saracens in a two-legged playoff final to determine which of them wins promotion to the Premiership.
Ealing come into the tie as underdogs despite another swashbuckling campaign in which they racked up nine bonus point wins from 10 games, their only blemish a heavy defeat at the hands of Sarries.
For the past three seasons they have finished as runner-up to the Premiership side who have come down and won an instant return to the topflight.
Despite this Saracens side being by far the strongest the Championship has seen; Ealing have continued to improve their squad and possess an excellent array of talent of their own plucked from all reaches of the rugby globe.
One of those signed ahead of this season was Max Bodilly, one of the standout performers across the Championship this campaign who would do battle with Elliot Daly for the 13 shirt in a team of the season, much as they will over the next two games starting this weekend.
Joining from Exeter last summer, Bodilly has been a revelation in the Ealing backline and can now look forward to another Sarries showdown having been part of that earlier defeat.
The Trailfinders will have gone three weeks without a game owing to a bye during the final round, allowing them extra prep time to improve on that previous showing.
“We had a week off after our last game, boys were in doing a little bit but the time off was nice. Hopefully it will have been good for us, it gives boys a bit of a chance to refresh which should be decent.” Bodilly said.
“Obviously Saracens are very good, aren’t they? They’ve got a lot of big names and all the rest of it. When they’re on form they’re obviously unreal, we’re just looking forward to it really, it’s a big challenge.
“They were good when we played them, but we were our own worst enemies at times, gave away a lot of penalties, gave them a lot of ins into our half and our 22, and with the players that Sarries have they’re always going to punish you.
“I think also maybe the results which Saracens were getting they weren’t winning as convincingly as you would’ve thought to start with and they lost down at Pirates as well, so maybe other people were seeing that and thinking they’re not firing but as soon as they bring in all the big names they’re straight onto it and they’ve made a massive difference.”
It certainly hasn’t been a procession to the playoffs for Ealing despite how certain results may make it look.
Doncaster chased them hard all season and it took until Ealing’s final game at home to the Knights for them to confirm a spot in the top two.
That provided an almost unofficial semi-final of sorts and a much-needed glimpse of ‘knockout’ rugby in this short burst of a season.
“Donny came out strong and physical, we gave away a few penalties as well which allowed them to put their power game on us but then we found our way into the game, we managed to score with probably our first few phases of actual attack and in the second half we ground them down and managed to get a bit of continuity to pull away a bit in the end, but it was definitely a hard game against a real physical side who’ve done very well this year,” Bodilly continued.
“We had a little bit of a buffer, but we knew that if we were to get into the playoff’s we needed to build momentum and keep our form up going into it. Sarries are going to be a really tough game over two legs so we know we have to be right at our mettle to really stand a chance.
“A few of us were saying the other day actually that we’ve almost been in the actual club for 12 months now and it’s only really been a 12 week season so it’s pretty mad, it’s a short burst of games so two losses and you probably don’t make the playoffs, it was all riding on the Doncaster game really which was almost like a knockout game so that hopefully will stand us well going into the next couple of weeks.”
Ealing have established a fine knack for being exceptionally strong finishers, and generally strong everything, often pulling away in the closing stages with replacements providing the killer blow after their opponents have run out of steam.
It’s been a true squad effort owing to the depth which they’ve been able to build throughout.
“Sometimes teams just take a while to grind down and when you look at some of the results we have won convincingly but first halves have been pretty tight and teams have come at us hard in the first 20-25,” Bodilly said.
“It’s just a bit about riding the storm and making sure we just stay calm and try and build into it over the 80 minutes which has gone well for us, we’ve been good in the second halves of pretty much every game.
“Other than Sarries we’ve probably got the biggest squad in the league and the quality as well, our bench whoever it is they always come on make a big difference and bring a lot of energy so that’s a very good asset to have.”
“For us it maybe looks like we’ve pulled away from the other teams a little bit but in some of the games they’ve been really close, some of the Champ teams just haven’t got the money or the capability to have the size of squad that we have.
“If they were to get three or four injuries it really does affect other teams whereas for us, we’re lucky we’re in a good spot where we can manage a few injuries like that and still put out a really good side from a decent squad.”
Having a big squad is all well and good with it certainly proving a general benefit against the rigours of the Championship, but the savvy of Ealing’s recruitment has continually improved year on year.
It may be remiss not to mention their wealthy backer but that is just a piece of the puzzle.
A deep dive around the rugby world has provided a melting pot of previously uncut gems, unheralded talents and veteran nous, plenty of whom can, have and will do a job at the top level.
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There will of course always be turnover such is the nature of the game, but Ealing are clearly building something special that players are lining up to be a part of.
“I think now the club are not looking to just sign anyone but people who will make a difference in the squad and help us push on to where we want to be,” Bodilly said.
“As you can see this year, we’ve got quality all over the shop, there’s always good players missing out so sometimes it’s about characters and signing people as well as players, it’s how they react and how they act around the squad on a day-to-day basis.
“There’s players who have been here for a few years now and they’ve performed week in week out and Ealing have always got good results so you’re thinking ‘I don’t know how they haven’t been picked up yet’, but that’s a sign of retention as much as recruitment and if they’re still here then that’s good for us.
“All the coaches here are excellent and I think in some ways how they coach and how they work here is pretty similar to Exeter. Wardy (Ben Ward) is pretty hot on having players that want to work hard and will fight for things, he drives in the fact that we’re gonna train hard and try to be the fittest and the fastest in the league.”
Cornishman Max is a product of the Chiefs academy, spending six years as a professional at the club and making almost 40 first team appearances.
Undoubted talent and enviable versatility won him admirers and saw him play in all major competitions but the sheer depth of talent and recruitment at the club meant it was always going to be a struggle to hold down a place in Exeter’s 23.
Able to play across the back three as well as in the centre he has nailed down Ealing’s 13 shirt this campaign.
The move to Ealing has certainly been a mutually beneficial one as the Trailfinders have themselves a supremely gifted player whilst Max is playing some of his best rugby with a run of games behind him.
“Eventually I was at the age where I needed to be playing regularly and obviously Exeter were going really well and I just wasn’t really playing enough so Ealing coming in was great, I’m really happy to be here and trying to push on with helping them get up,” Bodilly said.
“The people who were playing ahead of me at Exeter and the lads who were in the same position as me weren’t much older than me either, when I was looking to break through Sladey (Henry Slade) and Ollie Devoto were a couple of the centres there and both have played for England, I just couldn’t get any rhythm going or regular game time so that’s why I came here and I’d say it’s worked out pretty well so far.
“You forget how valuable playing every week is, at Exeter I’d be playing once every four or five weeks in the first team and it’s hard to get any sort of continuity or rhythm.
“Since I’ve been playing here you build that rhythm and get relationships going so you can start to feed off eachother, it gives you a bit of confidence when the coaches are backing you, you can go out and play a bit more freely and there’s a little bit less pressure on.”
During those formative years down at the Exeter, Truro-born Max spend several years on dual-registration with the Cornish Pirates.
A well-worn path trodden by countless young Chiefs it also means that he is certainly no stranger to the Championship gaining invaluable experience galloping around the Mennaye.
As well as being where Ealing first laid eyes on him it proved a great learning experience, as the Championship so often does.
“I loved it down there, Pirates is my local club, and my family are all still down in Penzance so for me to go down there and be playing every week for them was great,” Bodilly said.
“For a youngster a little bit of exposure to the Championship as well which is a really tough league and having to go to some really tough places did actually help me out, game time is the key thing, so it was great for me and my development.
“It would have been me, Sam Simmonds, Stu Townsend, Tom Hendrickson, Jack Innard, Josh Caulfield who’s there now, so there was a really good group of us who went down and a lot of them are kicking on and playing for Exeter every week.
“That’s why it works so well for Pirates and for Exeter, I think Exeter do value the league and they see quality that’s in the Championship, so they know that if they send their players down there, they know they’re in a good spot and they’re getting valuable game time.
“Coming up to Ealing I sort of knew what to expect a little bit, I knew a bit about the teams and where we were going to be going so it helped me in that sense too I think.
“I think this year is probably the most exposure the Championship has had for a while because of the streaming due to Covid, and I actually think it’s been really good.”
Whilst another Championship stint may not have previously been at the forefront of Max’s mind this season has been a fruitful one despite the incredibly strange nature of it.
A return to the Premiership is in touching distance with the playoff final imminent, whatever the outcome this time around Ealing will continue blazing a trail.
“For me coming here was a chance to try and play every week and get back into the prem to be honest, if I can do that with Ealing that would be amazing,” Bodilly said.
“Ideally for me and the club we just want to get up to the top and try to kick on and establish ourselves as a Premiership club.
“I’ve obviously only been here a year, but in the bigger picture the club have just been trying to get better year on year and coming in it feels like the team is in a better place now than they were in years gone by and if we don’t get promotion this year then so be it.
“What we’ve got to aim for is to try and be in the best position to go up next year if we don’t manage it this time around.”