Brains can triumph over brawn in watershed season
Premiership will push forward if teams create rather than destroy, writes Paul Ackford
NEW name, new broadcast partner, old problem. How do you get what has traditionally been a largely conservative, relegation-worried league to embrace the brand of rugby that is on offer this season? That's the dilemma facing the English Premiership, televised jointly by Sky and ESPN, which kicks off this Friday when Sale face Newcastle at Edgeley Park.
There are signs this could be a watershed season for English rugby. The fact that the World Cup exists at the end of the campaign should get the best out of the best and those with aspirations to that status. World Cups and Lions tours always spice up the months leading into those extravaganzas.
But before the icing, the cake itself. Professional rugby was 15 years old last week, and for much of its existence the challenge has been to increase the skills of the combatants to match the huge gains made in the gym and in conditioning generally. That's where the progress has been.
It was easy to measure speed, power, strength, heart rates, distances travelled. But decision-making and how to give or take a pass? That was altogether trickier. As a result, the sport has been out of kilter: easier to destroy rather than create; highly organised, aggressive defences dominating scaredy-cat, tippy-toe attacks.
All that may be about to change. 'May', because intention is one thing, execution another, yet the opportunities for sides to play are in place.
After years of fiddling with various laws and protocols, of tinkering with this and meddling with that, the authorities, by the simple expedient of asking referees to exercise discretion around the breakdown, have enabled the side in possession to keep hold of the ball longer and attack more. The benefits were immediate for the more ambitious teams with the better players when the changes were introduced towards the end of last season.
Now that clubs have had a summer to digest the implications, the scope for advancement is even greater. That is the theme that will run and run and determine who heads towards the top of the heap in May when play-off places are confirmed. It means rugby intelligence is back on the agenda, that players who just hit rucks and make tackles will be exposed. It means that the sides that possess scrum back fives who are comfortable on the ball will prosper, and those whose first thought is to kick well and defend will not.
It means that Leicester, Saracens, Bath, Wasps and Northampton, the teams who grasped the nettle tightest when the game opened up, will do well.
For my money, there are three groupings in the coming Premiership. The aforementioned quintet have the pedigree, quality, courage and resources to occupy the high ground, while London Irish, Harlequins and Gloucester will fight for breathing space just below the elite. That trio have a few more flaws. Irish, more than capable of embracing the right kind of rugby, have issues around consistency, and lack strength in depth.
Quins are a young side in the making, with only one parent in their squad according to director of rugby Conor O'Shea, which counts them out on the grounds of experience, and Gloucester, under boss Bryan Redpath, still need to demonstrate sustained devil up front and some imagination behind.
As for the no-hopers? Exeter, newly-promoted from the Championship and with a sprinkling of Irish talent, obviously come into that category, mainly because the odds are stacked against them financially, and because promotion confirmed late in May has left them raking over not very much in terms of recruitment.
Mind you, all that is finger in the air stuff because, while the one constant in each of the past six seasons has been that Leicester made the Grand Final, their opponents have included Wasps (twice), London Irish, Sale, Gloucester and Saracens, proving that the league is competitive and in flux. No sign of that changing either.
Scrummaging was reborn last season, emerging as a decisive factor in determining results at club and international level. The maul made a welcome return, and the All Blacks have shown throughout the Tri-Nations how attractive and successful rugby can be when all the elements are stitched together, when forwards and backs really do have the skill to operate in each other's domains.
Kicking is down, tries are up. How marvellous if the Premiership were to continue that trend. It's hardly too much to ask. They've had the best part of 15 years to sort themselves out.