Peter Bills: Gatland's right, the Premiership is weak

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Perhaps the most revealing quote of the past 10 days was that of England's Premier Rugby Chief Executive Mark McCafferty. It confirmed the old adage that, it's not what they say but what they don't say...

McCafferty rushed onto the nation's airwaves to denounce Warren Gatland's comment that this season's Guinness Premiership in England was "the weakest he had ever seen since he came to the northern hemisphere".

He almost fell over himself with indignation, spluttering that this was "a cheap shot". Why was it so cheap It was the words that McCafferty did not use that told you everything about the state of English rugby at club level this season.

McCafferty pointed to soaring attendance figures as evidence the competition is in rude health. "It was a pretty cheap shot I thought," he said.

"The fact is attendances are up 17 per cent this year and one particular match - Saracens against Northampton at Wembley - saw more supporters there than in the entire Celtic League."

But there are two aspects here. The first is, whose view carries the greater credence?

Gatland won three English League titles and a Heineken Cup crown during his three years as Wasps' director of rugby. He also steered Wales to the 2008 Grand Slam in the Six Nations Championship. McCafferty, on the other hand, hasn't coached anyone of merit, as far as I know.

But the most important thing about this was the words McCafferty did not use to defend the league in which his players perform, a world in which it would appear only increased support and more money really matters. At what stage did he say, the rugby in the Premiership this season has been of a remarkably high standard, among the best ever? When did he say, we have seen superb skills, games of real class and quality?

The answer is, he didn't. Fact is, he couldn't. For the truth is, Warren Gatland hit the nail very firmly on the head. Apart from a few exceptions, most of the rugby in the Premiership this season has been dire. The dearth of try scoring bonus points is no coincidence. To be fair, it hasn't been like this every year but for sure it is this year.

Anyone who sat through the London Wasps v Leeds match on Sunday and managed to stay awake would have testified to the crass standards pertaining on the field. Bottom-of-the-table Leeds won by kicking five penalty goals to three. A day earlier, Harlequins and London dragged out a 9-9 draw through three penalty goals apiece.

Now, as ever, there are motives on both sides of the coin. Gatland is taking a swipe at the Premiership to undermine England while McCafferty won't utter a word of criticism of the Premiership because it could affect his players' livelihoods. As ever, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Except that, in this case, Gatland is correct. Much of the club rugby in England this season has been desperately poor. Teams (and coaches) are frightened of expanding their game for fear of making mistakes and losing matches. This fear can be seen all over the field but principally in the continuing focus on defence. The starting point for these frightened men is, give nothing away, take no risks, apply pressure so the opposition makes mistakes and then kick the resulting penalty goals. This mantra has come to infect the entire Guinness Premiership; it is no wonder most of the matches are dire.

London Irish were an early season exception to this belief but even they, of late, seem to have slipped back into the caution camp. Saracens, who lead the Premiership, are the quintessential example, a side founded on the rock-solid defensive organisation that coach Brendan Venter has always espoused. As with most teams, kicking penalty goals has become the creed upon which whole philosophies are based.

Where McCafferty is being disingenuous is in citing figures of increased crowd support, thereby inferring that because more people are going, the rugby is better. It's not, it is worse. Just because more people decide to spend their Saturday afternoons watching does not mean the product is any good. Despite all the evidence, people still eat at McDonald's. Doesn't mean the product is wonderful.

Might not a little more honesty be a valuable commodity in this situation? Let's put it this way. I rather doubt that Martin Johnson is cracking open bottles of champagne every Saturday night at the rugby he has seen in the Premiership. But then, Johnson deals in reality. Clearly, certain others don't.