THE Covid-19 pandemic has been unfortunate for so many people that when Rugby Union starts again it will not top the agenda.
However, this enforced break does give clubs the opportunity to reassess where they’re going, and whether what they were doing before the lockdown is going to get them to their chosen destination.
Is very difficult during a season to do any kind of analysis, because week to week whatever you plan is dependent on results, and you go from result to result attempting to make quick fixes to what is not working, and polish those moves that are.
In the Premiership, clubs placed from fourth to eleventh are losing as much as they are winning, so the vibe at those clubs will be mixed.
What they should recognise now is that they are in a unique position of being able to analyse in depth why they are not performing as they planned – and this applies as much to players as it does to head coaches and their array of analysts and backroom staff.
If the season is to be finished there is also the question of whether it is possible to fit in another ‘in-season pre-season’ of anything up to a month, where, as well as getting their players match-fit again, they can also download all that analysis into their squads.
It is also likely that this enforced shutdown will bring a much tighter focus on recruitment among Premiership clubs. This will extend from whether you need players A, B or C to strengthen areas in which you have discovered weaknesses, so that next season you hit the ground running, to considering whether to bring in utility players who can cover more than one position.
How strongly clubs come out of the lockdown will depend on who’s been best when it comes to clear-blue-sky thinking. For example, Leicester Tigers would be bottom if Saracens had not been relegated, and before that let-off the pressure on the club would have been huge.
However, there can be no better time for clubs like Leicester to reboot, because this might almost give them the chance to start their season again.
You would have thought that after Saracens had been relegated the pressure would have lifted on the Premiership clubs as a whole, and the clubs would play with much more freedom – but that was not really apparent.
If attack is going to blossom if/when the season restarts, clubs will have to change their mindset, and recognise they have nothing to lose. Right now the risk-reward is all in their favour.
Last week, for instance, I talked about Bath not being able to make good decisions when they try to attack from their own half, and landing themselves in trouble. This might give them the opportunity to work out solutions.
It might also give every club the chance to work on handling. There should be a huge emphasis on this, because most English clubs can improve in this area. Pass and catch is one of the essential skills of this sport and practice, particularly under pressure, is the key to improvement.
In a playing sense some teams might benefit from the lockdown – particularly those who identify why they are struggling and make adjustments – while those who were riding high, like Exeter and Sale, might be less happy.
Even so, Exeter have become such a good all-round side that I doubt they will let it trip them up. For me, they are the champions-elect now that Saracens are out of contention.
Sale, who are much improved, will have other ideas, but I am not convinced they are yet a title-winning side.
Wasps were also making a comeback after a poor start to the season, and Lee Blackett appears to have made a strong statement after taking over from Dai Young and pushing them up to fifth place.
Blackett was a bit of an unknown when he came to Wasps from Rotherham, but it is good to see a young attacking coach develop into a head coach, and he could yet push them into the knock-out stage.
A lot can happen in this league if the remaining nine games are played and, if that happens, we will probably see some significant changes in the placings from second to eleventh. Northampton are fourth, and will not be easy to knock over, but if a side like London Irish – who are four places below them – up their game it is possible.
It will be a question of who is quickest out of the traps when – if there is no second wave of the pandemic – the action eventually restarts.
It will be harder for forwards to regain match fitness than it will be for backs, because they need a couple of weeks of high-intensity to get used to the bumps and bruises again and get the engines going. By comparison, backs are more like high performance sports cars that have been put in the garage during the worst of the winter, and just need a quick spin to be up and running.
I suspect a lot of forwards are so grateful for having a bit of a break so that they can get out of bed without creaking!
From what we’ve seen and heard most Premiership players have kept in reasonable nick, so their basic fitness should be pretty good.
Whatever the in-season pre-season period is, it should be clear to the clubs by now – so get planning.
There must also be a restart date decided by PRL, and if it is not possible to start playing again by then, for them to be ready to make another plan. It might mean playing only three more regular season games, rather than nine, and then going into the play-offs.
It’s all a question of being prepared, and thinking in terms of ‘if we can’t do that, we do this’.
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