Top flight must add pizzazz to power if England are to rule the world
Bath and Sarries in particular suggest Premiership is learning to add grace to grunt and grind. Chris Hewett reports
Saturday 04 September 2010
Seven years ago, England won the World Cup because of the Premiership.
There were a number of people back then, most of them embittered Rugby Football Union backwoodsmen on the wrong side of history, who preferred to pretend the national team had triumphed for different reasons, and those of them who continue to draw breath are still pretending today. But as Martin Johnson acknowledged at the time, the week-on-week intensity of the professional club game in the shires was at the heart of the matter, having produced a group of players who knew the law of the sporting jungle and understood how to make it work in their favour.
Johnson the wildly successful captain has long since mutated into Johnson the not-so-successful manager, and as the drumbeat of the next World Cup grows ever louder – this time next year, England will be in the last few days of preparation for their opening pool match with an Argentina side well capable of beating them – he must be wondering how the newly branded Aviva Premiership will contribute to the red-rose cause. Will all that bone-crushing, muscle-shredding ferocity be the making of his team, or prove to be its undoing?
Things have changed since 2003. English club rugby is not the financially dominant force it was in the early years of the last decade, and as a consequence, rival tournaments have levelled the playing field: the French Top 14 is now the runaway success story in the northern hemisphere, while the Magners League offers something bigger and better with each passing season. Even the physicality gap has closed. Premiership rugby is still pulverisingly hard – Leicester win the title more often than not because they are the pulverisers-in-chief – but impressive as they may be, the Midlanders are merely King Bullies in their own playground. When it comes to Europe, there are a dozen teams capable of standing up to them.
The fear for Johnson must be that the Premiership will take its usual toll on the poor bloody infantry without providing him with a cavalry capable of mixing it with the All Blacks, the Wallabies and (on a good day) the French. For this reason, he must hope and pray that the refereeing of the tackle area – rugby's running sore ever since the legislators on the International Board messed things up by banning boots on bodies – stays true to its present spirit. The small adjustment made in favour of the attacking team two-thirds of the way through the last league campaign allowed the best English teams to play in a way that bore at least a passing resemblance to the cutting-edge stuff on show in the Antipodes.
If there was a lesson to be learnt from England's summer trip to Australia, it was not that the Wallabies are beatable at home – shorn of 50 per cent of their first-choice side, they are beatable anywhere and everywhere – but that even with an overwhelming advantage up front, victory is not a given. In 2003, big rugby games were generally won in the way they had been in 1993, 1983 and 1973: that is to say, by teams with the superior tight-forward unit. It is not the case any more, although tight forwards still count. Four months ago, England scrummaged Australia clean into the Indian Ocean and still lost the Perth Test. They were all over them again in Sydney a week later, and would have lost again had Matt Giteau been in any sort of kicking form.
All things considered, then, this season's Premiership must offer something more than grunt, groan and grind. Can it deliver? The signs are encouraging. Two of the teams who made the play-offs in May, the runners-up Saracens and the beaten semi-finalists Bath, are pretty much committed to playing an open, high-tempo game, while Gloucester and Wasps have some back-line pizzazz about them. Indeed, it will be worth watching the latter just for their wings. It may be that the club game has never seen a quicker trio than Tom Varndell, David Lemi and the new signing Richard Haughton.
We can also expect the loose-ball scrap to end all scraps; indeed, there are as many high-class open-side flankers on the Premiership's books as there are down there in New Zealand. Lewis Moody and Tom Rees, Hendre Fourie and Steffon Armitage, Andy Saull and Will Skinner – this is just the English contingent, bolstered by such young, thrusting types as Calum Clark and Jacob Rowan.
But this will count for precious little if there is no surge in the quality of midfield play, an area where the Antipodeans and the French, blessed as they are with outside-halves and centres capable of transmuting the mere science of rugby into art, have such an obvious advantage. Johnson bristles at the mere mention of "freedom", "expression", "creativity"; even when the likes of Giteau, Quade Cooper and James O'Connor were defining these words in front of his eyes during the summer, it somehow failed to register. And on his return, the manager promptly declared that he did not consider Olly Barkley to be among the best 64 players in country. "He's certainly among the best 64 in Bath," responded Steve Meehan, head coach of the West Country club.
If the Premiership loses out to the Top 14 and Magners League anywhere, it is at Nos 10, 12 and 13. The English club game is not bereft of creative intelligence: Toby Flood of Leicester is a far better stand-off than many appear to believe; Charlie Hodgson of Sale can run a game with the best of them, given half a chance; Alex Goode of Saracens and Freddie Burns of Gloucester are rich talents. But in the Celtic lands, the likes of Jonathan Sexton and James Hook play with more licence, while in France, there are half a dozen centres who would stroll blindfolded into the England Test team.
Not that the paying public will, even for a minute, view the forthcoming domestic programme through the prism of England's dreams and ambitions. For some years now, rugby-watching has been footballising itself, in the sense that the man on the terraces at Welford Road, the troglodyte in the Shed at Kingsholm and the poor sod paying upwards of £25 for the privilege of being soaked to the skin on the back row of the flowerpots at the Recreation Ground are in no doubt as to their priorities. The Premiership title or the World Cup? Please. As no-contests go, it is right up there with New Zealand-Tonga in Auckland, scheduled for a year on Thursday.
Club rugby in England may have its issues, both financial and competitive, in the face of increased pressure from other parts of Europe, but to the crowds who continue to be drawn to it the Premiership is the best show in town. Soothsaying has always been a mug's game, but it is not unreasonable to predict that average gates will push the 20,000 mark before 15 men in white shirts win another World Cup.
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