I don’t know about you but good as much of the World Cup has been and will hopefully continue to be I’ve rather missed the Gallagher Premiership – its ferocity, familiarity and its closeness with no given game a formality. Its delayed return tonight, when Bristol host Bath, is to be welcomed and if England can keep going in Japan it can surf that wave of enthusiasm for the game that RWC2015 was meant to generate.
Of course the Premiership sides have been in action for a while now in the inaugural Rugby Premiership Cup, much of which has been highly watchable. There have been some decent crowds but as a guide to what will now follow it has almost no relevance.
Exeter and Sale have been the pick so far but the approach of the 12 clubs has varied.
Some matches have been chockful of aspiring players rather in the fashion of the old LV Cup but others have been much meatier affairs with almost full strength line-ups minus World Cup absentees flexing their muscles in the lead up to next weekend.
The semi-finals in January and February and the final in the March could be very competitive.
Distance and time always offers perspective and Premiership directors of rugby, although chomping at the bit to begin the new campaign, have at least enjoyed the luxury of a long summer and the early weeks of autumn to really analyse last season and revise the major work-ons. You can see why you lost the war, not just individual battles. And if you are Saracens you must work out how to keep winning the war.
Looking at last season’s table afresh some things hit you with renewed impact. Take seventh placed Sale for example who claimed the same number of wins (11) as fourth placed Northampton. Indeed Sale lost only one fewer game than high flying Gloucester in third place.
The difference? Simple. The Sharks gained only a miserable three try bonus points all season which is so against the general perception of what you expect from free-flowing Sale as to be, frankly, ridiculous.
This was the team of Chris Ashton, James O’Connor, Denny Solomona, Byron McGuigan, the James brothers, Faf de Klerk, AJ McGinty and the roaming Curry brothers albeit some were injured and they saw next to nothing of Marland Yarde.
In fact, only relegated Newcastle Falcons (43) and struggling Leicester Tigers (47) scored fewer tries than Sale. Crossing the whitewash became a real problem for Steve Diamond’s team.
For all his side’s fine qualities and strength at home they must ramp up their firepower bigtime and start winning more ball – hence the spotlight on their new signings who include Boks lock Lood de Jager and the three hard nosed du Preez brothers from South Africa as well as the loan, for a season, of England’s Mark Wilson. That should do the trick nicely.
Leicester Tigers coach Geordan Murphy might look at a column in the table with puzzlement, the one that shows his side garnered eight losing bonus points in a season in which they won just seven games. You could argue that demonstrates an ability to dig – or you might think that’s an awful lot of important, very close, games in which they didn’t force more wins.
A blip, an anomaly, bad luck, dodgy reffing or do the modern-day Tigers have some sort of mental issue when it gets close? Would a sports psychologist help? Why are Tigers not keeping their nerve in these games? It used to be their defining characteristic. We will soon see if the tide has turned.
Another revealing column is tries against. All-conquering Saracens have won four of the last five Premiership titles and there are many reasons for that but by far the most important is their indomitable defence.
During these glory years they have conceded fewest tries in four of the five seasons averaging just 38 per regular season game. It underpins everything they do. And the message is simple. Concede fewer than two tries a game and you will be Premiership contenders for sure.
What last season also did, much to the chagrin of some at Premiership Rugby, was highlight the value of a right royal battle against relegation and to hear the Premiership continually argue for a closed shop is to wonder if they really understand the value of the product they have.
The gulf in class between the top two regular season teams – Exeter and Saracens – and the rest was large and frankly much of the interest came in the fight to avoid relegation.
Could Bristol survive after coming up? An emphatic yes. Surely Falcons were too good to go down? Sadly they weren’t. Surely Leicester Tigers would get their act together after Christmas as they usually do? No, not really but they survived anyway. Will Worcester Warriors ever be free of relegation worries? Probably not but they will continue to fight the good fight.
With at least three televised games every weekend, sometimes more, imagine the monotony if there was no relegation in the air when the first two play-off places seem a formality. Relegation gives the league a good deal of authenticity and adds relevance and bite to many games after Christmas that could otherwise become exhibition games and ‘friendlies’.
So how is this season going to pan out? Well it is impossible to see past Saracens – bolstered by the arrival of Elliott Daly – and an Exeter side with Stuart Hogg on board in terms of finalists come June 20.
I live in hope, however, of a more substantial challenge from others. There is no reason to suppose Gloucester won’t continue to improve and what a good bit of work they did in securing the services, at no exorbitant cost, of the experienced Joe Simpson at scrum-half.
Somebody at Kingsholm clearly had their finger on the pulse around Christmas when the transfer market gets very busy and realised they would be seeing considerably less of Willi Heinz and Callum Braley this season.
Sale must raise their target from the top six Diamond usually aims for to a definite top four spot. The squad he has now compiled is well capable of that while Saints will continue to build on their strong showing last term.
Who knows which Wasps team will turn up but with Malekai Fekitoa and Matteo Minozzi on board they could be exhilarating to watch again, ditto Quins who have been busy recruiting with canny Pumas scrum-half Martin Landajo probably their best signing.
Elsewhere London Irish look much more organised than they were the last time they came up from the Championship and have a fighting chance of survival alongside Worcester. Will Bristol experience a second season syndrome and find this season harder than last? It’s possible but Pat Lam has been here before, he cleverly plotted a slow and steady rise at
Connacht and knows the pitfalls. Leicester? Who knows, answers on a postcard please.
Other random hopes for this season? Let’s start with a heartfelt plea for a few more dropped goals. If they are good enough for World Cups they surely have a place in the Gallagher Premiership. Last season in 176 regular season games and three play-off fixtures we saw just two, both coming from Freddie Burns for whom some kind of medal should be struck. Don’t let it become a forgotten art.
From the refs, while acknowledging that the RFU/Prem refs are as good as any in the world, it would be nice to see more consistency.
Players and fans are trying hard to adapt to new, stricter rulings on the tackle but they must apply across the board for every game and only the referees can make that happen.
On the subject of refereeing let’s not forget other areas of the game that are suffering sorely from neglect. There are way too many forward passes and if you don’t ref them, it undermines the skill and ability of those who can pass and off-load legally at pace or in difficult circumstances, it devalues the skill of those actually passing and those who time and delay their runs best.
‘Great’ tries that include obvious unpenalised forward passes, don’t linger in the mind, they leave a bad taste. Similarly skilful players are too often neutered by cynical creeping offside defences – and that congestion also contributes massively to the surfeit of dangerous high tackles.
Officials should be encouraged to come down like a tonne of bricks on such tactics even if the directors of rugby do kick off and whinge for a while. They will get over it when it is the opposition and not them that start getting pinged.
One quirky hope is that when commentators and pundits pontificate that an incident should only be viewed in real time – in fairness to those involved – the referees and us are not then offered six or seven replays in super slo-mo.
Rugby, outside of the Vets XV, is not played in slow motion so officiate it in real time whenever possible.
Finally players, other than the captain having a quiet word, who appeal for red or yellow cards should automatically copy a yellow card themselves.
Such behaviour would then cease in about two weeks top whack and do us all a favour.
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