Peter Bills: Premiership's lack of quality can't be concealed

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Much of the hype generated by the propagandists for the Guinness Premiership evaporated like a pile of snow in hot water last weekend.

Sale Sharks, Gloucester and Harlequins all lost crucial Heineken Cup matches confirming my long held belief that while some or all of them might enjoy the occasional wondrous day in the Premiership, give them international opposition and they’re nowhere near as convincing.

Sale were blown away in Limerick by Munster’s rapacious hunger for a quarter final slot. Gloucester, as they invariably do on these occasions, came up short again, at home to Cardiff and Harlequins were so bereft of technical acumen, common sense and discipline in Belfast against Ulster, they didn’t deserve to win.

Even with a gale and rain like stair rods at their backs for the whole second half, the Londoners could not overhaul what should have been Ulster’s insufficient 16 point half time lead in those conditions.

This was a clueless performance, from No. 8 Nick Easter’s absurd petulance in arguing about a refereeing decision (from a palpably offside position which conceded a vital extra 10 metres) to Chris Malone’s flawed substitution for Nick Evans at a critical stage.

So three clubs’ failures’ is insufficient evidence? Well, what of Bath’s struggle to snatch a narrow victory over those Welsh conquerors of the world, Newport Dragons, a side with a host of youngsters? Meanwhile, London Wasps just scrambled home against Leinster but still may not qualify.

But it wasn’t all tales of mediocrity from England’s Premiership teams. Mighty Leicester ran up a hugely impressive 52 points against, er, the Italian giants of Calvisano.

And look at the great wins in the Challenge Cup for London Irish, 75-5 over fearsome Connacht, Bristol, 37-19 victors over disinterested Toulon’s second or third team and Worcester who flogged Bucuresti 38-19, the same score by which another English Premiership side, Saracens, despatched more Italian minnows, this time from Viadana. Meanwhile, Newcastle lost 9-10 at home to Brive.

Now one weekend doesn’t make a season any more than a load of hot air from an organisation’s PR staff tells you the real story about a competition. But those who sit back smugly and talk about the Guinness Premiership being the best in the world ought to adjust their TV sets or get an eyesight check.

Even the sides at or near the top of the English league are all over the place, notoriously erratic. London Irish look brilliant one week, shocking the next and tame the following one. Bath, who draw eulogies of praise from the easily impressed, are so outstanding they managed to lose a 22-9 lead at Leicester all in the last 14 minutes to slip to a dismal defeat.

Saracens and Wasps are unpredictable, Harlequins generally much improved this season but still with a long way to go. Sale, Newcastle and Bristol are clubs in decline, Leicester no more than proud, spirited and occasionally effective.

The trouble is, you never get a true perspective of anything until you go outside your own comfort zone. Sale can beat the Premiership leaders London Irish in familiar surroundings at Stockport. But look what happens far from their comfort zone at Munster. And to think some people were still saying recently Charlie Hodgson ought to be in the England squad. Defensively, he’s about a 3rd division player.

On a sunny day on their home ground, most Premiership clubs are capable of beating anyone else from that league and scoring a few tries into the bargain. Some of these games have been quite close and entertaining, which has led to the erroneous conclusion on some people’s part that the Premiership is filled with great rugby.

Sorry for the reality check but I can tell you, it isn’t. Half the time it’s technically woeful with inaccurate passing and hopelessly amateurish errors. A few vicarious thrills along the way cannot mask that fact.

And just because the punters pour in, that’s no assurance of quality. 22,000 deranged souls went and watched Charlton Athletic, bottom of the Championship and on a 1-way ticket to anonymity, play and lose another match recently in an 18-game nightmare run without a win. So please don’t think if the public goes it must be good.

Like any other league, the Guinness Premiership has a few cracking games, a lot of ordinary ones and its’ fair share of absolute rubbish. To suggest everything in its garden is so wonderful and successful that even more fixtures are merited next season, is to stray deep into the world of porky pies.

The clubs want more games to raise more money, simple as that. But they’d do well to remember the old maxim – sometimes more is less.