Rugby’s congested calendar seldom pauses for breath but as summer turns to autumn, England’s top male clubs have at least finally enjoyed some time for reflection. After the pandemic forced two seasons to rather run into one with an abrupt, abridged off-season last autumn, an expanded Gallagher Premiership now returns after a more conventional summer break in encouraging fettle with fans back en masse for the first time in 18 months.
For while it has been a British and Irish Lions summer of hand-wringing and hand-waving about the perilous state of the game, the Premiership produced a season of exceptional quality last time around. Perhaps freed by a temporary pause on relegation that remains in place, clubs were able to give greater opportunities to young players and explore more adventurous, avant-garde and attacking territory in the highest-scoring Premiership season yet.
“The semi-final and the final were two of the greatest games I have ever seen, full stop,” said Tabai Matson, the affable ex-Bath coach newly arrived at Harlequins to head the defending champions’ coaching team. “The antithesis was seven weeks later when we saw the Test series between South Africa and the British and Irish Lions.”
Matson takes on an unenviable job, a painter asked to touch up the roof of the Sistine Chapel after Harlequins’ glorious renaissance. He steps in to the top coaching office at the Stoop challenged with repeating the trick after a season where Harlequins caught lightning in a bottle as they dazzled and danced their way to only the second Premiership title in the club’s history.
The New Zealander is keen not to curb Quins’ expressive style that so caught the eye, though recognising the challenge of repetition.
“I was really impressed that they were really clear on their identity and they wanted to succeed and that is exciting,” Matson said ahead of the new season.
“It is tough to make any type of change, humans don’t like change especially when you have had success – but the Premiership is tough. If we don’t move we will get run over.”
Few would be foolish enough to suggest that ring-fencing is desirable in the long-term but for now there are benefits. The continued pause of relegation means this will be an odd season – 13 teams begin with hopeful, wide eyes, necessitating a slight season extension but allowing one team a bye week each weekend.
In a league more competitive than ever, eyes are naturally drawn across London as Saracens return from their enforced year in the Championship with a point to prove. Boosted by a host of returning loanees, the squad still looks mightily strong on the surface, but perhaps lacks the obscene depth of the past. Director of rugby Mark McCall’s mood music carries an ominous, aggrieved tune.
Elsewhere, west may prove best with both Exeter and the Bristol Bears likely to contend once more. Barring an extraordinary collapse against Quins in the semi-final it could have been the Bears sashaying in the Twickenham sunshine on their way to the title. Do not bet against the most exciting team in the country completing their journey to a title for which Pat Lam’s side have seemed at times preordained.
As for Rob Baxter’s Exeter, the excellence of execution remains the key at Sandy Park for the beaten finalists. Such is the consistency and rounded nature of their game now that it would be a real surprise if they do not again figure in the play-offs, though there is discomfort in the silence amid growing questions around their nickname as Wasps look at a "ban on the wearing of novelty Native American headdresses”.
Sale’s spiny South Africa trunk is as an impressive academy continues to bear fruit under a head coach, Alex Sanderson, who will continue to build the sort of culture that he helped oversee at Saracens. Leicester will look to make similar strides under Steve Borthwick, though the Tigers’ evolution is perhaps still at a more formative stage. Ellis Genge has been appointed captain at Welford Road.
For as much as the league’s structure may see increased chances for youngsters, there are intriguing old-stagers, too. Danny Cipriani – who is working privately with Jonny Wilkinson – enters the perhaps the final stage of his career of curiosity at a talented, though thin, Bath, while Mike Brown leaves Harlequins for Newcastle after 16 years in southwest London.
Worcester are presumed to be among the weaker sides but have recruited cannily, Willi Heinz’s wiles at nine supplemented by a pair of Scottish Lions, with Duhan van der Merwe and Rory Sutherland bedding in at Sixways.
We will have to wait until October for the British and Irish Lions players to be sighted as they enjoy an extended break. When they return, they may do so with clubs able to implement slightly more relaxed Covid-19 protocols once 85 per cent of players and stuff have been vaccinated, a figure most clubs expect to achieve soon.
There are also law trials to be deciphered – two taken and tweaked from rugby league, with the 50:22 and goal-line drop-out ensuring the game will, at times, look slightly different. Perhaps of even greater significance to curb the influence of “latchers” – supporting players bound to a ball-carrier – by ensuring that there is not more than one and emphasising that that player must remain on their feet.
All law trials are now implemented with safety in mind as rugby faces continuing questions about player welfare alongside increasingly concerning research. As the new season begins on Friday night, with Bristol hosting Saracens, the topic will not be far from the mind, but if the Premiership reproduces its early summer form another fine season will be enjoyed.
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