Here comes everybody. A little over a decade after Saracens and their supreme outside-half Michael Lynagh attracted 20,000 spectators to Vicarage Road for a floodlit match against a Newcastle side who would go on to win the first Guinness Premiership title by the rugby equivalent of a gnat's crotchet, this self-same competition is about to break attendance records right, left and centre.
The best part of 150,000 supporters will attend this weekend's fixtures, which mark the mid-point of the current campaign. Recession? What recession?
Harlequins, those masters of the scintillating sales pitch – has there ever been a more brilliantly conceived and compelling sporting circus than the one created by Dean "Barnum" Richards on Bloodgate day last April? – are confident of drawing something in the region of 80,000 paying customers to Twickenham for tomorrow afternoon's derby with Wasps.
At around the same time, a sell-out crowd of 24,000 will watch the Leicester-Sale game at Welford Road, while upwards of 18,000 are expected to congregate at the Madejski Stadium for the game between second-placed London Irish and the only team sitting above them, who just happen to be the same Saracens who started the ball rolling back in 1997-98.
Throw in five-figure audiences for the West Country frost-wrestle between Bath and Gloucester and today's Midlands set-to featuring Worcester and Northampton, and it doesn't much matter if the sixth of these Christmas contests, the Newcastle-Leeds game at Kingston Park, pulls in the proverbial one man and his whippet. To think there were those who thought club rugby would never catch on.
Needless to say, the union game will never rival football as a commercial enterprise. There again, would it be in its best interests to do so? By and large, professional rugby players in England are paid on time, which is more than the round-ball merchants down Portsmouth way can say. And while there is plenty of indebtedness in and around the Premiership, none of the clubs are quite so far up the financial gum tree as a good three-quarters of the Premier League.
The irony surrounding this weekend's instalment of thud and blunder is the relationship, or lack of it, between the standard of attacking rugby and the size of the crowds forking out to watch it. Only Northampton have found a way of averaging two tries a game, and even they have only just managed to make it out of the one-per-match-and-no-more category. Worcester and Leeds, who occupy two of the bottom three positions, have yet to work their way up to one. Both have scored the grand total of nine tries in their 10 Premiership outings to date.
Defences are king. Saracens are at the top of the log, resolute and unbeaten, largely because they are so niggardly when it comes to playing without the ball. They have conceded only five tries – one every two matches – while their nearest challengers, London Irish, have conceded seven. If these statistics suggest that tomorrow's game might be about as exciting as watching the grass grow (or, in a more sporting context, sleeping through one of Geoff Boycott's less extravagant Test innings), they have not impacted on business at the box office.
Perhaps the return to fitness of Delon Armitage, very definitely missed by an England side who played their autumn Tests without a specialist full-back, will give the Exiles the jump-lead treatment they need. London Irish were scoring tries for fun in the early part of the season – they put 40 points on Gloucester, 56 past Leeds and rattled up 28 against Wasps before September was out – but with Armitage suddenly off-limits and the wings Sailosi Tagicakibau and Adam Thompstone incapacitated into the bargain, some of the fizz disappeared from their game. If they are to find a way through the Saracens barricades tomorrow, they will have to rediscover a few bubbles.
Whatever happens at the Madejski, there will be no change at the head of the leaderboard. Northampton should start tomorrow in second, though, even if they are back down in third by the end of the afternoon. Worcester have lost only once at Sixways this season and generally stay competitive to the bitter end of each match, hence their haul of three losing bonus points. But their visitors are playing some of the most attractive rugby to be found in Premiership-land and have the all-court game to eke out a victory.
For Quins, the second of their yuletide "Big Game" productions marks another significant step away from that fascinatingly tacky business with the blood capsules and the scalpels. They have their new director of rugby in Conor O'Shea, an upstanding gent of a rugby man if ever there was one, and have kept hold of most of the people who really matter to them, including the chief executive Mark Evans and the coach John Kingston. Victory over Wasps would take them into a new year in a new, infinitely brighter frame of mind.
Almost unnoticed, they have found a route back into the top half of the table, despite one of the worst defensive records in the tournament. Tony Diprose, the former England No 8 who organises that fragile side of the Quins game, was strongly tipped for the job to which O'Shea has been appointed. Now the decision has been made, he can concentrate fully on the task in hand.Reuse content