No holds barred as title fight intensifies

Zurich Premiership: Stability after years of trench warfare promises a campaign that will be 'harder, better and very definitely not pretty'
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Now here's a funny thing: 2,000 people – not 20, not 200, but 2,000 – pitched up at the Stoop Memorial Ground in leafy south-west London the other night to watch Harlequins, once the least businesslike rugby club in Christendom, play a pre-season friendly. As sporting miracles go, it was not quite in the same class as the Ali-Foreman fight in Kinshasa, but it was pretty impressive all the same. Three years ago, Quins could not attract anything like 2,000 supporters for a big Heineken Cup game, let alone a beer match.

For Mark Evans, the chief executive and occasional coach of the first English winners of the European Shield, last Friday's run-around against the honest but not terribly charismatic Second Division journeymen of London Welsh bordered on the revelatory. "I always insisted there was a big rugby market in this area waiting to be tapped," he said this week, "but 2,000 for a friendly? Unheard of." Now that Evans is in a position to rein back on the tracksuit chores and involve himself fully in the pin-striped process of putting posteriors on furniture, gate receipts may soon rise faster than John Eales at line-out time.

And the key to all this talk of bull-market boomery, of English club rugby as the Next Big Thing? Stability. For the first time in five years of sporting trench warfare, the Zurich Premiership élite know where they are going, when they can expect to arrive and how much it is likely to cost. They even have money in the bank, now that the ageing flatulents of the Rugby Football Union have released the first instalment of the £1.85m they agreed to distribute to each club over the next 12 months under the terms of the eight-year joint venture agreement signed at Twickenham a little over four weeks ago.

Hurrah! Hats in the air, drinks all round, let's throw a party. This avalanche of sanity may conceivably lead to Fran Cotton, the chairman of Club England, and Francis Baron, the RFU chief executive, shaking each other by the hand as opposed to the throat. It may also persuade the backwoodsmen of the RFU Reform Group to stop condemning the professional club game as if it were the biggest heresy since the Cathars, and prevent Malcolm Pearce, the maverick owner of Bristol, cancelling matches unilaterally. If so, the kingdom of heaven will truly be within reach.

Domestic union has never had, and never will have, a better opportunity to work its way into the nation's sporting consciousness and stay there. A new broadcasting deal is firmly in place, one that gives the un-digitalised, un-cabled, dish-less majority a chance to keep up with developments for the price of a licence fee. There is a fixture list, too: a proper one, with real dates and kick-off times. Club rugby has not had one of those for years – not at the start of a season, at least.

Most importantly, the Premiership itself is in a position to take full advantage of this new and beneficial set of conditions. Sixteen points, including bonuses, separated fourth-placed Northampton from 10th-placed Sale at the end of the last campaign, and that margin is likely to drop significantly this time around. Why? Because the league programme kicking off at The Stoop and Kingsholm on Saturday afternoon is comfortably the most competitive since Wasps won the first title of the professional era in 1997.

According to Dean Ryan, once the Big Bad Wolf of the union game and now the ferociously combative coach of Bristol, this season's rugby will be "harder, better and very definitely not pretty". Which is the way Ryan likes it, of course. "The Premiership is a tough environment in which to develop a team, and it gets tougher by the year," he explained. "The standards go up season on season, and that can only be good for the game at England level. It may not be attractive, in the Barbarians sense of the word, but there is no more competitive club league than the Zurich Premiership."

In other words, the English clubs are playing what might be called "real rugby", as opposed to the pat-a-cake candyfloss purveyed by the southern hemisphere during the early years of Super 12. The Premiership has been the engine behind an England team that now has world supremacy in its sights, the crucial element in forcing the Tri-Nations powers – Australia, South Africa and New Zealand – to re-sanction a legitimate contest for the ball in all phases. It has also forced the French to revamp their own domestic championship, where top-flight numbers have been reduced from 21 to 16.

Ryan expects to see "real rugby" in all its blood-and-guts glory over the next nine months; certainly, he believes the pack chasing Leicester, English champions for the last three seasons and now European champions as well, to be far larger and more threatening than was the case last season. He can expect to be proved right, too. If the old Leicester-Bath rivalry remains as bitterly unforgiving as ever, there are a dozen other rivalries to savour: indeed, who would declare with the remotest confidence that Newcastle will finish third and Northampton eighth, when there are perfectly good reasons to suggest the reverse?

Leicester seldom look anything other than potential winners, and with Josh Kronfeld trading the sand and surf of New Zealand's South Island for the sleet and sludge of the East Midlands – is the man mad? – the Tigers can prowl forth with confidence. Frankly, there is no greater likelihood of their losing a first Premiership game at Welford Road since December 1997 than of Austin Healey throwing in his lot with the local monastery and abiding by the vow of silence. But they may find away-days more testing now that the likes of Newcastle and Quins are developing a fortress mentality.

Expect the Premiership argument to continue deep into the spring, an English club to reach the final of the Heineken Cup for the fifth time in as many attempts and England to complete a Grand Slam by smashing Ireland all over Lansdowne Road in October before claiming another Six Nations title in the new year. Indeed, expect everything to run smoothly until 2003, when the World Cup takes place in Australia. That will be beyond the English. World Cups always are.