People used to argue that class is permanent and form only temporary. Not in these unprecedented stop-go days of English rugby. As the Premiership season re-emerges blinking into the bright summer sunlight, woe betide any ambitious clubs who respond slowly to this weekend’s starting pistol after 23 weeks in limbo.
Because the traditional domestic marathon is suddenly a gut-busting sprint, complete with unfamiliar midweek games, as the league looks to make up for lost time and, more pertinently, precious television income. Nine rounds, plus the play-offs, with everything settled by late October. An element of speed dating is set to replace steady courtship, which will suit some more than others.
Will creative sparks instantly fly, for example, when Bristol wheel out the formidable Semi Radradra and their other big new signing Kyle Sinckler in the same starting lineup as Charles Piutau? How much extra bite will Manu Tuilagi and a fit Lood de Jager add to Sale? Or will Exeter simply pick up from where they left off, taking advantage of Saracens’ defrocking en route to a second title in four years?
If your answer to the above questions is “Not really bothered” you are rugby union’s worst nightmare. For all the reasons we know about the lockdown period has been sobering for oval-ball aficionados, made worse by the earlier return of football, cricket and virtually every other sport with a pulse. If Covid-19 does not bankrupt professional rugby, an air of general indifference will.
Which is another reason why tiptoeing into this abbreviated, sawn-off segment of games is a non-starter. Every club yearns for the return of full stadiums but, with the 2020-21 season kicking off in November and recessionary times looming, now is not the moment to be offering season-ticket holders excuses to spend their money elsewhere. Even sides like Leicester and Worcester without much to play for need to give a glimmer of hope to their estranged supporters.
Add in the absence of the usual relegation dread, firmer surfaces and the law tweaks around the ruck which will punish those slow on the uptake and the chance of fireworks increases further. Bristol, Wasps and Northampton all like to throw the ball around and the majority of the teams beneath them have nothing to lose. There will be no crowds, for now, inside the grounds but the mission has to be to recapture every absent heart.
So who will rise to the unique challenge? When football’s Premier League emerged from lockdown, no club improved their position by more than two positions and the lack of warm-up games will make it harder for new signings to hit the ground running. That said, Exeter will shortly have to travel to both their closest pursuers, Bristol and Sale, within the space of four days and will be glad of their five-point cushion at the top that should still be enough to earn a home semi-final berth.
With so many matches to squeeze in, the depth of everyone’s squad is going to be crucial. Few have focused on Exeter’s signing of the Scotland lock Jonny Gray but along with Sam Skinner, Jonny Hill, Dave Dennis and Will Witty, their pack now have an increasingly steel-lined core and their last two home league games before the lockdown yielded 114 points with only 27 conceded. Those who perceive Exeter as purely forward-orientated slog merchants are forgetting the cutting edge Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Stuart Hogg and Tom O’Flaherty can supply.
The Bears and the Sharks, even so, have been gathering momentum: defending Radradra, Piutau, Tuilagi et al will be a deeply unenviable task if they are allowed to play off quick ball. Sale also boast the tightest defensive unit in the Premiership – Mike Forshaw sounds not unlike Shaun Edwards and does a similarly top job – and
have conceded an average of fewer than six points per league game at the AJ Bell since the start of December. Tom Curry will surely enjoy the amended breakdown charter as well.
It did not take those involved in Super Rugby Aotearoa very long to adjust and hopefully one or two Premiership scrum-halves will also have studied the peerless Aaron Smith and adjusted their sights upwards. The unknown quantity is whether echoing English stadiums will make any major difference, although Steve Diamond has already joked that Sale are well used to performing in front of empty seats anyway. The suspicion must be that referees, at least initially, will be less inclined to award penalties against visiting sides in the absence of the thousands of one-eyed officials in the stands.
Most critical of all, though, is the overall public impression created between now and the end of October. Rise triumphantly above the pay cuts, fixture congestion, inevitable early injuries and silent surroundings and rugby will go a long way towards restoring a lot of lost love. Descend, alternatively, into a fog of failed Covid-19 tests, multiple penalties, collapsed scrums and financial gloom and passions will soon be doused. Much more rests on the next two months than final league positions.
State of the Union
Good to see some clear-sighted plans emerging in Australia, where would-be broadcasters are being wooed with a range of offerings from the rights to cover the Wallabies to a four-week “Super 8” competition for the best sides to emerge from the respective regional Super Rugby tournaments. The latter is an interesting development which, if it comes to pass, would increase the chances of a long-discussed overall northern v southern hemisphere global club play-off. Equally tantalising is an annual “State of Union” battle between NSW and Queensland, with players representing either the state of their birth or the place where they played their first club rugby. It is a massive draw in rugby league which could even be transplanted to English union in the annual form of a North v South clash of the red rose titans (assuming the packed fixture calendar ever permits). Maro Itoje and Elliot Daly on one side, Owen Farrell and George Ford on the other? It may just catch on.
Worth watching …
Following the cancellation of England’s summer tour to Japan, these are also important days for several up-and-coming players keen to force their way into Eddie Jones’s plans. In no particular order it would be good to see Jack Willis, Joe Cokanasiga, Ben Earl, Max Malins, Zach Mercer, Jacob Umaga and Joe Marchant underline their strikingly diverse talents and stake a claim for national squad recognition this autumn.