Sale prove success story of gruelling campaign

Leicester may have retained Premiership crown with ease but last season's also-rans have emerged as true challengers
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Fitter, faster, harder – the Premiership marketing mob agreed on this catchy little slogan as their "brand promise", and they will be pleased to know that it is precisely 66.6 per cent wrong. Fitter? Please. Half the professional players in England are in need of surgery, and the other half have just come round from the anaesthetic. Faster? Not really. By definition, there is nothing remotely speedy about a domestic season beginning on the first day of September and staggering punch-drunkenly into the second week of June.

Fitter, faster, harder – the Premiership marketing mob agreed on this catchy little slogan as their "brand promise", and they will be pleased to know that it is precisely 66.6 per cent wrong. Fitter? Please. Half the professional players in England are in need of surgery, and the other half have just come round from the anaesthetic. Faster? Not really. By definition, there is nothing remotely speedy about a domestic season beginning on the first day of September and staggering punch-drunkenly into the second week of June.

"Harder" has a bit more going for it, though... and not just in terms of the mathematical torment involved in working out who plays where in Europe next term. This campaign has been granite-like from start to finish, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to fathom how the Premiership population keeps body and soul together. Wayne Smith, a former All Black coach and therefore a graduate of UBHK (the University of Bloody Hard Knocks), cringes every time he sends his Northampton side on to the field. "That was as tough as anything I've seen all year," he gasped on Sunday, after the Saints had seen off Newcastle in a brute of a contest.

Had the clubs allowed their international players a little quality R and R, as they agreed when signing their lucrative peace accord with the Rugby Football Union last summer, the current rumpus over England's forthcoming two-match hop to Argentina might never have broken out. But agreements are there to be ignored, it seems. Ben Cohen has made 29 appearances for Northampton this season, only three of them off the bench, and played six Tests out of 10. On Sunday, he hobbled off at half-time with a dodgy ankle. It will be an orthopaedic miracle if he does not have a dodgy everything else.

There is no easy way out of this; indeed, a new contradiction arises every time someone opens his mouth. The International Rugby Board's apparent concern at player burn-out has not prevented its cynical scheduling of a cross-hemisphere money-spinner smack in the middle of the European season; Clive Woodward, the national manager, worries about fatigue, yet wants training access to his Test squad on a weekly basis; the clubs whinge and moan about the forthcoming England trip to Puma country, but are unwilling to condemn an end-of-season play-off tournament of mind-boggling asininity.

Of course, there are those who claim the season ended ages ago – on 12 April, when Leicester wrapped up a fourth successive title that had been pretty much theirs for the taking since the start of the year. But that is to miss the true significance of the campaign. By emerging from the bottom half of the 2000-01 table to fill second, third and fourth this time round, Sale, Gloucester and London Irish smashed the Premiership mould into a thousand pieces and recast it in a daring new form.

Sale have pretty much everything except a top-notch tight head, an international-class centre and a crowd. They should fill the first two holes during the summer – the third, more of a crater, is beyond them at this point – and are in excellent shape to ask the big question of Leicester next time round. A happy club as well as an ambitious one, thanks in large measure to the sympathetic management approach of Jim Mallinder and Steve Diamond, their success on both domestic and European fronts has been one of the principal satisfactions of the season.

While Sale looked inwards for their inspiration – Mallinder played 169 league games for the club, Diamond very nearly as many – Gloucester reached for the atlas and the binoculars. Their French contingent, recruited by Philippe Saint-André before his mid-term departure for Bourgoin, were bang on the money from day one – has anyone ever kicked a ball more sweetly than Ludovic Mercier? – as was the Argentinian wing Diego Albanese and the Fijian flanker Koli Sewabu.

Henry Paul had his difficulties, not least because he was earning twice as much as everyone else while playing a quarter as well, but Nigel Melville, the new director of rugby at Kingsholm, seems to speak his language. (Where Saint-André's vitriolic Franglais left the celebrated cross-coder incandescent with rage, Melville's sweet nothings have inspired him). If Paul catches fire in the company of the brilliant young Jameses, Simpson-Daniel and Forrester, the West Countrymen will be unrecognisable from the up-the-jumper vintage that ruled the Cherry and White roost during the last golden era, 15 years ago.

And London Irish? They have the potential to be one of the two or three biggest clubs in the country. They have state-of-the-art facilities, a support base comparable to Gloucester's and Northampton's, if not Leicester's, and their marketing act is sharper than a surgeon's blade. They have a team, too, courtesy of Brendan Venter's recruiting skills and Gary Gold's game-planning expertise. While Venter continues to resist the lure of his medical practice in Cape Town and stays put in Reading, they will continue to thrive. The problems will arise when the Premiership's favourite GP decides he would rather treat busted cheekbones, than suffer them.

According to Venter, his South African homeland is full of professional players yearning for English rugby – or, more to the point, English wages. Pieter Rossouw is already bound for London Irish, Werner Swanepoel has signed for Worcester and Andre Vos is on his way to Harlequins. There are rich pickings in Springbok country, and it may well be that Bath, Harlequins and Saracens, traditional big hitters fallen on hard times, will spend the summer fishing on the high veld.

Poor Bath. Badly managed and bedevilled by dressing-room unrest, theirs has been a pratfall of epic proportions. Their next major decision, the appointment of a director of rugby, is the most important for two decades: a wrong call now, and they can wave goodbye to the next five years. Who could have predicted the writing of that sentence nine months ago? Leicester may be boring us rigid with their competence, but incompetence elsewhere ensured a Premiership to remember.

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