Premiership returns high in drama but low in quality – did we expect anything else?

Five months off was always going to have a huge influence in the standard of rugby played at the weekend – but the empty stands around the players seems to have an even bigger impact

Jack de Menezes
Sports News Correspondent
@JackdeMenezes
Tuesday 18 August 2020 09:13
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The Premiership returned with a series of below-par games inside empty stadiums
The Premiership returned with a series of below-par games inside empty stadiums

In the record books it will read ‘Round 13’ of the 2019/20 Premiership season, but it will be remembered as so much more than just six games of rugby union.

Thursday brought team news, Friday had the first kick-off in more than five months and the weekend provided plenty of action, talking points, upsets and debates to ensure that every man and his dog knew that rugby was back.

But the quality? Where was the quality? There was an excellent game at Northampton Saints, but that was largely due to the way that Wasps went about their attacking business to record a crucial victory in the race for the play-offs, not because of two teams hitting their stride. Bristol edged a tight affair against Saracens, but then this side is far removed from the one that went into lockdown after a flurry of player exits.

Gloucester and Bath recorded convincing victories, while Exeter did what Exeter does best: physically-dominating an opponent up front at Sandy Park before allowing their creative backline to scythe through the defence.

But perhaps it was the words uttered by Steve Diamond at the Twickenham Stoop on Friday night when his Sale Sharks side were turned over 16-10 by a rejuvenated Harlequins side that summed up the opening weekend of the Premiership: “We want to see some entertaining rugby, and we certainly didn’t.”

From one to 12, every club in the Premiership can be forgiven for resuming the season in second or third gear. The resumption of the Premier League back in June produced two complete rounds of dreary, predictable football that very often resulted in rudimental home victories, so at least the Premiership can boast two away wins and three surprising results.

Even the teams who won were not happy with their business, although in Rob Baxter’s words, those demands are why Exeter have become the strongest team in the country.

"It will take a few weeks to be absolutely flying,” Baxter said after the 26-13 victory over a new-look Leicester. “But the important thing is we have the ability to keep winning in a number of ways."

In very different circumstances, London Irish ended up on the wrong end of a 34-17 defeat against Bath, yet the message was still the same. "One of the things we need to improve on is timing and that will come with practice and more matches,” said Exiles director of rugby Declan Kidney. “We just need to work harder in those areas to get things right.”

Games played out in front of empty stands at the weekend

There is one glaring factor that has contributed towards this league-wide feeling, and that is the empty stands around the teams. The weekend’s six games all played out behind closed doors due to coronavirus, but unlike the Premier League, the Premiership has not committed to staying that way for the rest of the season. There are hopes that not only will fans be allowed to attend club rugby in the coming weeks, but some games can even be used for pilot events to test out the return of supporters to the sport.

"Personally I found it horrible," Baxter told the BBC on Saturday. "It was great to watch the lads play a game of rugby, and it was fantastic to get the sport back on TV, but did it feel like a great day at Sandy Park? Not really.

"We need to hurry up and start getting trial events in place and start getting crowds in here, in the correct way."

With the RFU not only keen on seeing fans return but banking their financial future on it, the sport will receive all the support it needs in getting the gates reopened. With players getting their match sharpness back, the return of supporters should coincide with teams hitting their stride.

But for now, the low-quality rugby produced on the Premiership’s return will have to do.

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