Can World Cup glory be forged in Premiership's fiery encounters?
Rugby’s most competitive league on the planet starts tomorrow night with Leicester the team to beat as next year’s global contest concentrates minds. Chris Hewett previews a domestic season to relish
Some time around midwinter, when the mud is ankle deep, the Jeremiahs will be in full voice. “This Premiership stuff,” they will say, “may be hard and fierce and bitterly fought, but it won’t win England the World Cup.” At which point, it might be worth reminding people that when it comes to laying hands on the Webb Ellis Cup, a dead-eyed kicking game and a watertight defence tends to count for a whole lot more than an artistically refined approach to back play featuring six fully fit James Simpson-Daniels and a Carlos Acosta.
If Stuart Lancaster’s red-rose players seize the global title on home soil in October of next year, it will be because their rugby was forged in the fires of the most competitive league in the sport – last term, 51 per cent of matches across 22 six-game rounds and a knockout stage were decided by a single score – rather than in a dance studio. It was true when the then unknighted Clive Woodward worked the oracle in Australia in 2003 and there is no earthly reason why it should be any different in 2015.
Remember the All Blacks three years ago? They had Conrad Smith and Israel Dagg, but when it came right down to it, it was a loose-head prop with a messed-up face by the name of Tony Woodcock who scored their only try of a final they were meant to win by gazillions. A dodgy try, too. And we could go on. There were no tries at all in the classic South Africa-New Zealand final in 1995, or in the Springbok-England decider in Paris a dozen years later. When the rugby matters most, five-pointers are as rare as rocking horse pooh.
Which is not to say that this season’s Premiership, which begins on Friday night with a sell-out contest between the champions Northampton and an expensively revamped Gloucester, is for ruck-and-maulers and nobody else. England will not prosper by muscle alone – even the most aggressively physical outfits need some football in them somewhere – so the four-way scrap for the national No 10 shirt between Owen Farrell, George Ford, Freddie Burns and Danny Cipriani will count for plenty. So too the fight at No 12 (Luther Burrell and Billy Twelvetrees, the two men currently ahead of the field, go eyeball to eyeball this evening), not to mention the contest for the wing positions, featuring half a dozen prime contenders.
Two of last season’s play-off challengers, Northampton and Harlequins, have kept the phone on the hook and the folding stuff in the bank: leaving aside academy promotions, they have signed just five players between them. Elsewhere, at Gloucester, Leicester and London Welsh, there has been activity on a Manchester United scale, although not quite at the same price. Indeed, it is possible to select a side of Test-quality newcomers from overseas – experienced All Blacks, the best of the Italian pack, four or five eye-catching South Seas backs – and underpin it with a bench full of high-class recruits from nearer home, in Wales and Scotland.
This may not be exactly what Lancaster wants to hear, given his exclusive interest in England-qualified personnel, but the national coach is immeasurably better off than poor old Philippe Saint-André, his beleaguered counterpart across the Channel. In some positions, the French are virtually bereft of resources – sometimes, it seems that Tricolore props have gone the same way as the dinosaurs – while more than half the Premiership teams can count their foreign legionnaires on the fingers of two hands, or even one.
There is, as ever, a danger that the overseas numbers will rise in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup, a natural watershed for southern hemisphere types in search of a decent payday. (Bath, not exactly short of money, are widely assumed to have reached an agreement with the Wallaby scrum-half Will Genia). And now that the Australian Rugby Union has sanctioned a mass exodus by telling its leading players they are welcome to push off for a year’s money-trousering as long as they sign a long-term deal at home, there is every chance of Quade Cooper or Michael Hooper or Israel Folau touching down at Heathrow from Sydney or Brisbane.
Yet many of England’s biggest clubs feel confident enough to spurn the idea of signing foreigners on quick-fix terms. “It’s not really our thing,” said Richard Cockerill, the Leicester rugby director, this week. “It’s hardly a great statement to make about your club, is it? That you’re happy to bring in someone who will cash in for nine months and then disappear. You want people to be with you for the right reasons, working to the right agenda. Sure, there’ll always be a Sonny Bill Williams hopping around from place to place, but I can’t see us looking for such an arrangement here.”
That Cockerill has brought in one Antipodean – the extraordinary World Cup-winning All Black lock Brad Thorn – on precisely this kind of short-term contract does not mean he can be charged with hypocrisy in the first degree. For one thing, Thorn is 39 and has travelled here from Otago because he relishes the challenge; for another, Leicester are likely to lose their first-choice locks, Ed Slater and Geoff Parling, to Test activity either side of Christmas. “Brad is a different case entirely,” Cockerill said, adamantly. “If we get this right, he’ll be of huge value to this club going forward.”
The Tigers look as well placed as anyone to win this thing: if the inventive Burns rediscovers the best of himself at club level by playing front-foot rugby behind a dominant pack, they will fancy their chances of returning to Twickenham for the grand final in May after last season’s sabbatical. But it will be far from easy. Of the 12 teams in the top echelon, no fewer than seven have finished on top of the log since the introduction of the Premiership in the late 1990s, while half a dozen know what it is to win the title via the play-offs. What wouldn’t football give for such an egalitarian spread?
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