New-season changes aim to improve finances, skill, discipline and speed
Leicester set the Premiership benchmark while London Welsh will try to avoid finishing bottom
Twenty-five seasons of league rugby in England have passed, and what are the headlines as the Aviva Premiership gets ready for the 26th kick-off with London Welsh and their lawyers muscling in, and Newcastle Falcons the first former champions to have plummeted through the relegation trap door? Players are getting too many bangs on the head and the referee needs eyes in the back of his. Hardly the most inspirational way for a rugby public who doubtless cheered the summer's gold-medal battalions to pick up the Olympic baton.
Rugby in its sevens form will return to the Olympics in Rio in 2016; a year earlier England will host the Rugby World Cup, mostly in football stadiums as the organisers follow the theory that flogging hundreds of thousands of tickets and making millions of pounds adds up to the best legacy for the sport.
The Premiership, too, appears to be booming to judge by the record number of spectators attracted to last May's final – a thrilling match won by first-time champions Harlequins over perennial contenders Leicester Tigers – and one-off occasions during the season at Twickenham and Wembley. Which is all fine as long as today's cauliflower-eared players are not turning into tomorrow's consumers and couch potatoes. Someone still needs to be playing the game.
An unchanged itinerary of 22 matches in the league, six in Europe and four in the LV Cup, plus several more in knockout rounds if a club do well, is bound to promote endurance over flair. Players staggering to the touchline after one hit too many will be given a few minutes and cognitive-test treatment before being allowed to continue.
More prosaically, yet alarmingly, the Premiership shed 132 players in the summer, including those in the older bracket who slipped away unwanted as younger, cheaper academy players took their places. No wonder depression is said to be the silent epidemic of the changing rooms.
A punch-up 16 months ago between England internationals Chris Ashton (now a big-name transfer to Saracens) and Manu Tuilagi was the spark to the Premiership trialling an extension of the television match official's remit this season. Tuilagi's escape from an obvious red card has led to the referee being able to be pulled back by the TMO if he has missed an incident of foul play. Additionally, the referee can ask to rewind TV replays as far back as the previous set-piece to check whether any misdemeanour has been overlooked in the build-up to a try. This all assumes that a faceless man in a TV truck outside the stadium has everything he needs to substitute for the extra pair of eyes the referee has supposedly been lacking. That truck may need a firm lock on it to repel the disgruntled while the TMO sits and sweats over whether Player A clocked Player B while Player C was holding back Player D.
From excuses to exclusions: each Premiership team now have an "excluded player" whose pay no longer counts towards the salary cap – a "marquee player" or, alternatively, the man of mystery, since no club have yet broken the bond of confidentiality to reveal who theirs is. One small-print rule is that the player must be in at least his third season with the same club, so for instance Nick Evans, the high-quality New Zealand fly-half reportedly on £330,000 a year, would qualify as Harlequins' "excluded player"; Gavin Henson, the high-maintenance Wales fly-half who has joined London Welsh after infamously short spells with Saracens, Toulon and Cardiff Blues, would not. This, of course, is a moot point for the Welsh, who are a good few bankers' bonuses short of the cap of £4.26 million (topped up to a maximum £4.5m with academy credits).
The RFU, on the advice of the Premiership auditors, originally denied Welsh's promotion from the Championship, only for the Exiles' QCs to successfully challenge that, insisting that the so-called primacy of tenure at a home stadium was a bit rich – or anti-competitive, to use the vernacular – considering four or five clubs in the Premiership did not have it. So Welsh's small but happy band of followers will be in the big time, at the cost of relocating from beautiful Old Deer Park in Richmond to the functional Kassam Stadium in Oxford.
They seem ill-equipped to finish anywhere other than bottom – and though many of us said the same about Exeter two years ago, there were a few who had watched the Devonians' rise closely and had faith in the coaches, players and infrastructure at Sandy Park. The Chiefs have survived and thrived, with a fifth-placed finish last season leading to Heineken Cup qualification in a giddying group with Leinster, Clermont Auvergne and the Scarlets.
Europe comes along in October; until then the last days of summer will see Leicester begin their pursuit of a ninth straight Premiership final, after three wins in the previous eight. They are predicted by the London Wasps coach, Dai Young, to be in a group of four clubs nailed on for the top six, and probably higher, along with Harlequins, Saracens and Northampton. The Tigers have played 176 league matches in the last eight seasons, and lost 48. Never unbeatable, but certainly the benchmark. Ambitious Bath – who have mustered a stellar coaching panel of Toby Booth (attack), Mike Ford (defence), Neal Hatley (scrum and line-out) and Brad Davis (backs) around new head honcho Gary Gold – feel it is high time they climbed up to it. Gloucester, Sale and London Irish will harbour similar hopes.
London Wasps have some quality players and are relieved to have new owners, but despite their name they will – like London Welsh and London Irish – play a long way from London. And though Harlequins have branded themselves the Heart of London, the only club with a capital postcode will be Saracens – that is, when they move into the rebuilt Copthall stadium in Hendon NW4.
This is set for February, when Sarries will pioneer playing Premiership matches on artificial grass, with the enthusiastic and, indeed, radical backing of the RFU and International Board, who have also removed the "pause" from the scrum engagement sequence and given scrum-halves only five seconds to clear the ball from the ruck, both in the name of speeding up the game.
The outcomes of all these experiments should sustain the bar-room chat in the nine months through to the Lions tour of Australia.
Pro 12 preview: Leinster looking to gain revenge over Ospreys
When Ospreys' peerless pixie of try-poaching, Shane Williams, dabbed the ball over a Dublin goalline to win the RaboDirect Pro 12 final for his side last May, it pricked the bubble of the three-time European champions Leinster. It gave Wales the domestic title to go with the Grand Slam, but the Irish will fancy themselves for revenge this season.
Under the praiseworthy coaching of the 32-year-old Steve Tandy, Ospreys won the league when Dan Biggar converted the try by Williams in a dramatic 31-30 victory over Leinster, who had won the Heineken Cup the previous weekend. Williams is now twinkling his toes in Tokyo, and other Wales stars have left for French clubs. Tandy admitted: "It is disappointing to lose high-profile players but it's challenging to find the next Shane Williams."
Jealous clubs in England and France want the Heineken Cup re-ordered to reflect their commercial clout and more arduous qualifying route. The Pro 12 may be fitful in its consistency but its best teams at their best are outdoing the English. The Scottish sides Edinburgh and Glasgow are growing in belief, and Ulster have adjusted their reliance on South Africans by bringing home the Ospreys wing Tommy Bowe and Northampton No 8 Roger Wilson. The Italians have shuffled their resources, ditching Aironi for the Parma-based Zebre.
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