Less than four months ago, South Africa and New Zealand played a Tri-Nations match in front of a crowd so sparse by the standards of rugby union's most captivating fixture that it seemed the authorities had brought the game forward a day without bothering to tell anyone. This would have been quite dispiriting enough had it happened at one of the mightier Springbok strongholds - Ellis Park in Johannesburg, or King's Park in Durban. By failing to sell out the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in little old Rustenburg, the overblown international game hit a low point.
There are some, particularly in the Test fraternity, who routinely accuse the Premiership of hitting low points of its own. It is, for example, most unusual to spot even the faintest suggestion of a smile on the face of Brian Ashton, the new head coach of England, after a league match. He watches plenty of them, but derives encouragement from precious few. Andy Robinson, his predecessor, openly criticised what he considered to be a lack of pace and dynamism; other leading figures, not least Rob Andrew of the Rugby Football Union, complain of inadequate skills, or a lack of imagination, or a worrying preponderence of foreign players.
And yet, on Wednesday of last week, more than 21,000 spectators filled Ashton Gate for a Bristol-Bath derby that took on a life of its own from the moment the home team's management realised places at the Memorial Ground would be oversubscribed by at least 150 per cent. This might be dismissed as a one-off, but for the fact that another 21,000 will turn up for the Bristol-Leicester game in April. Maybe we should call it a twice-off.
Much to the puzzlement of the International Rugby Board and the RFU, both of which continue to view professional club rugby in England with a suspicion bordering on the paranoid, the punters continue to punt away to their hearts' content, and in ever greater numbers. How, the critics ask, can business boom to such a degree when defences rule the roost, try-scoring moves are rarer than hen's teeth and space is so limited that a terminal agoraphobe might be tempted to embrace the union game as his sport of choice?
What is it about the Premiership that its adherents find even remotely attractive? On the evidence of the first half of this season's tournament - the 12th of 22 rounds takes place this afternoon - the negatives identified by the nay-sayers are not negatives at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. Tries are indeed difficult to come by: last season's average was 4.35 a game, and the elite clubs are struggling to manage that many this time round. International rugby, by contrast, yields around five per match in tournaments and significantly more in tour fixtures.
This, however, is a strength of the Premiership, rather than a weakness. As a general rule, low try counts produce close contests. More than 50 per cent of league matches since the start of the 2005-06 campaign have ended with seven points or less separating the teams - a remarkable statistic that explains, in part, why crowds continued to grow during last November's international window. (Damningly, only 30 per cent of the Tests played in Europe during those four weeks were as competitive).
This tells a tale, one that goes to the very heart of the nature of spectator sport. There are those in rugby governance who want the union game to be more "entertaining", and are hell-bent on adjusting the laws. Quite whom they are seeking to entertain is unclear. Genuine rugby folk have no burning desire to see a dozen tries a match - if they had an appetite for such scoring, they would push off and watch the Harlem Globetrotters instead. What they do crave is a battle. When the All Blacks put 70 points on their opponents, it is easy to admire them but difficult to be moved by them. When they fight tooth and nail for victory and conjure a little magic in the process, as they did against the Wallabies in Brisbane last July, they earn the respect of friend and foe alike.
Respect is something Bristol now command, as a result of their heroics over the last 11 games. They are far from pretty and they rarely set the River Avon alight with prolific assaults on the scoreboard. They are, however, brilliantly coached, intelligently managed and highly motivated. Those who believe their two-point lead to be a sorry reflection of Premiership standards are guilty of missing several points, not least the fact that their style, rooted less in sophistication than in suffocation, has its similarities to the one that brought England a world title a little over three years ago.
It remains to be seen whether they can hold things together for another four months. Richard Hill, their head coach, had set his sights on eighth place before the off, but now admits it is "extremely difficult not to start thinking about the possibility of a top-four finish and a place in the Heineken Cup".
In truth, they have yet to be tested to the limit. When they beat Sale, the champions, at the Memorial Ground in November, their opponents were badly compromised by Test calls; when they travelled to Leicester, just before Christmas, they effectively conceded the game by fielding a second team. They have yet to visit Wasps, Gloucester or Saracens; more injuries to go with the one suffered by their Test scrum-half Shaun Perry last week could leave them gasping for air.
But as Leicester demonstrated in winning four consecutive titles between 1999 and 2002, strength at home leads to strength elsewhere - and Bristol have yet to lose in their own city this season. Three of their five remaining home fixtures are eminently winnable; a clean sweep would put them very close to Heineken Cup qualification, irrespective of what happens on the road. With an increasingly boisterous local crowd behind them, and a bare minimum of international call-ups ahead, anything and everything is possible.
When it comes to probability, however, the prize appears destined for one of the two perennial big hitters. Leicester are near to unbeatable at Welford Road, despite being a mere 70 per cent of the side they were under Martin Johnson before the last World Cup, and appear to have rediscovered some of the ruthlessness at the core of their being. Wasps, tiptoeing their way into the post-Dallaglio era, are playing a quicker game than any of their rivals - one that sets them apart as the most potent side in the country. Both could be undermined by Six Nations demands; both could be distracted by Heineken Cup business. All things considered, though, their meeting in the East Midlands on the last day of the regular season is still likely to decide top spot ahead of the ill-conceived and wholly unnecessary play-offs.
The scrap for the two other play-off places promises all manner of fun and games. Bristol have enough points in the bank to consider themselves contenders; Gloucester will press hard indeed if they take eight or more points from back-to-back meetings with an injury-ravaged Sale; Saracens, the free-scoring surprises of the season, are well in touch, now they have turned their backs on the half-baked autocrats of yore and found a fully fledged technocrat to run the show. Step forward, Alan Gaffney, and take a bow. You've played an absolute blinder.
A logjam at the top? Very much so, thank the Lord. With two bonus-point wins separating first and sixth, and with London Irish gathering momentum in seventh, the Premiership will remain on its upwards trajectory. Even Worcester, nine points adrift in rats' alley, expect to attract fullish houses to the bitter end.
That end may come sooner than even the most pessimistic of Sixways regulars feared if they fail to win at Northampton this afternoon, a match that has a do-or-die look about it, however premature this may seem. But if the worst comes to the worst - if Leeds, who meet all the promotion criteria, win National League One as they should and shove Worcester through the trapdoor - all will be right with the world. As Bristol are busily proving, relegation does not necessarily mean the end of everything. Taken in the right spirit, it can be the start of something.
Examination results: Making the grade in the Premiership
* THE GRADE A GAME
West Country derbies are played to their own laws, which explains how the Bristol hooker Mark Regan got away with his football-style hack at the Gloucester No 8 Luke Narraway during a humdinger of a game at the Memorial Ground in late November. It also explains how a full house celebrated it as the best occasion in living memory, despite the desperate weather and the shortage of try-scoring opportunities. Jason Strange won it for Bristol by dropping a goal in the final second. Heart-stopping stuff.
* THE GRADE A DISPLAY
Dan Ward-Smith's display in the Bristol back row, that self-same night, was stunning. The No 8 carried the ball like the Lawrence Dallaglio of old while covering the field like the James Forrester of the here and now. How long can he maintain it? Long enough to make an England career for himself, with a little luck.
* THE COULD DO BETTER DEPARTMENT
A number of candidates here - the Bath team, the Wasps goal-kickers, the Newcastle tight forwards. But from England's point of view, Steve Thompson of Northampton (left) is the most urgent issue. At his best, the World Cup-winning hooker is as capable as anyone. Can someone please aim a rocket in the general direction of his posterior?
* THE ABSENTEEISM DEPARTMENT
Anyone seen Worcester lately? They missed the start of term and are still missing now. Should we call social services, or the police?
* THE WELCOME TO THE NEW BOYS DEPARTMENT
Young Chev Walker and not-so-young Andy Farrell have made progress since arriving from the other place. Will they learn sufficiently quickly to sit the ultimate examination this autumn? The odds are against it, but stranger things have happened.Reuse content