The most competitive campaign in Premiership history will also be the most uncertain. That much became clear yesterday as coaches and players alike gave voice to their alarm over the new rules – Experimental Law Variations, in committee-speak – about to be imposed upon them by the International Rugby Board, which has no support for any of this among the English clubs but is pressing ahead anyway.
"We have a set of laws picked out of a cornflakes packet," remarked Eddie Jones, the new director of rugby at Saracens. "Dragging down the maul is the biggest farce of all," muttered his counterpart at London Irish, Toby Booth. "We've had three warm-up games, and we haven't been refereed the same way twice," groaned Philippe Saint-André of Sale. And Pat Sanderson, the former England flanker who captains Worcester? He suspects some teams will be far happier playing without the ball than with it.
According to Sanderson, the architects of the ELVs, which affect such crucial areas as the line-out and the maul, have failed to think things through. "There has been no proper assessment of the linkage between the new laws, the way a change in one area of the game affects other areas," he said. "When you combine this with the new edict from the IRB about the refereeing of the breakdown, which will make it harder for the team in possession to protect the ball, it's quite likely that sides will decide they don't want it in the first place. And then where will we be?"
Despite the successful fight against the most extreme elements of the ELV package – the hare-brained move to replace penalties with free kicks, currently on trial with considerable comic effect in the southern hemisphere, and the spectacularly ill-judged attempt to draw an offside line at every tackle, which has yet to see the light of day in elite rugby anywhere in the world – the English game remains worried to its very core.
Saint-André believes it will take at least eight games, almost half a season, for teams to come to terms with what is now expected of them. "What will spectators see? It is massively difficult to predict," said Saint-André, still so traumatised by the foul-up against London Irish that cost his side a play-off place last season that he pointed theatrically to his throat and claimed he was still "unable to digest" the result. "In good conditions, we may have a quicker game. In wet weather, I am sure teams will kick far more than usual."
For all that, yesterday's official Premiership launch was not without good news. Ian McGeechan, who will be splitting his coaching time between Wasps and the Lions over the next few months, reported that Danny Cipriani, the brilliant young outside-half who made such an impact in his first international for England before suffering a grisly fracture dislocation of the ankle, was back on his feet and running strongly. "Danny is moving at between 60 and 70 per cent and is ahead of schedule," McGeechan said. "It's very encouraging. All things being equal, he'll be there or thereabouts by the end of November. We expect to see him back on the field pre-Christmas, rather than post-Christmas."
It was also announced that ITV had bought rights for a one-hour weekly Premiership highlights package, thereby reintroducing the competition to rugby followers without a satellite dish. The show will be screened twice, first on ITV 4 in the Sunday teatime slot and then on ITV 1 on Tuesday nights.