English rugby’s longest ever hiatus in the Premiership era will end tonight when Harlequins host Sale Sharks inside an empty Twickenham Stoop. Beyond the two sets of teams, the backroom staff and a selection of the British media, the 14,800-capacity stadium located across the road from the home of English rugby will be deserted, with the usual bouncing atmosphere nowhere to be heard.
Welcome to the new rugby union. Despite every optimism that fans will be able to attend games sooner rather than later, full stands will not be witnessed until well into the new year. For those fortunate enough to attend, temperatures will be taken, contact details registered and post-match press conferences conducted over a laptop rather than a face-to-face chat.
Rugby will be one of the last sport’s to return to action in Britain, so learning this information will be nothing new. But it is worth looking beyond the new coronavirus protocols to see what is really on offer: unpredictable, unscripted entertainment that we have missed for too long.
Fans have waited 159 days for a professional rugby match to be staged in England, with New Zealand’s and Australia’s Super Rugby competitions politely filling the gap on weekend mornings. However, that just doesn’t match up to a sunny afternoon at Sandy Park or a pumping Friday evening at the Stoop.
For now, the sport alone will have to do, but luckily there is plenty to play for given the nature of the Premiership play-offs with nine points separating fourth from ninth in the race to make the top four. Add to that the widespread changes across the league, with the coronavirus hiatus acting as an unprecedented transfer window for the 12 Premiership clubs, and it is impossible to predict who will hit the ground running and who will slip away over the coming weeks.
The new signings provide the most intrigue. Bristol Bears have developed a reputation for starting each season significantly stronger than the last since they returned to the top flight, but even by their standards, these nine remaining rounds will be something special. The additions of Kyle Sinckler from Harlequins and Semi Radradra from Bordeaux has the potential to transform the club into genuine and regular title contenders, given that they have retained a squad that was going along nicely in third place as it was.
The club directly in front of them, Sale Sharks, haven’t been resting on their laurels either. They will deploy a mouth-watering centre partnership against Quins tonight in the form of Sam Hill and Manu Tuilagi, two of the summer recruits from Exeter Chiefs and Leicester Tigers respectively, while Mark Wilson’s return to Newcastle Falcons will be negated by a league-leading back-row unit of Jono Ross, Dan du Preez and the Curry brothers.
Having set the pace since the start of the season, Exeter Chiefs could find themselves under threat. They have recruited too, with Scotland internationals Jonny Gray and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne arriving, but in losing Matt Kvesic and Nic White they will miss two standout performers from the side that put them five points clear of the chasing pack.
Northampton Saints currently hold the keys to fourth place, but Wasps sit just two points back with Bath, Quins, London Irish and Gloucester all in touching distance with play-off hopes alive and 45 points left to play for.
But there is one other battle to keep an eye on. Having long been the standout coaches in the Premiership, neither Rob Baxter nor Mark McCall are interested in the England job. The season restarts with Eddie Jones about to tick over into the final three years of his deal with the Rugby Football Union, and although the 2023 Rugby World Cup remains a long way off, talk of the Australian’s successor is never far away. Two years into Jones’s first World Cup cycle as England boss, then-RFU chief executive Steve Brown spoke of the desire to build a pathway of young homegrown coaches who were capable of replacing him once his time was up.
That path has taken a long time to construct, so much so that Jones decided to stick around for another four years through to 2023. But as the season resumes, there are three obvious candidates who are vying to fill his shoes, having all learnt their trade off the England boss himself.
Paul Gustard surprised many when he abandoned England’s 2019 World Cup preparations to take the head of rugby role at Harlequins two years ago, but he has company now in Steve Borthwick and Neal Hatley, who will lead Leicester Tigers and Bath this season as the latter steps up from his position as forwards coach. Borthwick is considered the leading candidate to replace Jones in 2024, but the Leicester role is not one for the faint hearted as England’s most successful club languish down in 11th, safe from the drop zone only due to Saracens’ salary cap penalties this season.
The upheaval at Welford Road has been nothing short of seismic, either. Twenty-seven players have left the club since the start of the campaign, along with board members, with only 17 coming in. Among those departed are the England wing Jonny May, who alongside South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe is arguably the best finisher currently in the game, and Tuilagi, who the club had just got fit and firing on all cylinders before a contract dispute over his proposed pay cut resulted in him leaving Leicester after 11 years with them.
Sale swiftly snapped up free agent Tuilagi, but back at Welford Road there is a new chapter to be written. Borthwick has been drafted in from the England set-up to work with director of rugby Geordan Murphy, with Mike Ford on the books too. Among their new arrivals is the Fijian powerhouse Nemani Nadolo and Zack Henry, the exciting and unconventional fly-half who will be an intriguing option when George Ford is away on international duty. The cast has very much changed at Leicester, but the story may be the same unless Borthwick and Murphy find a new direction for the club to move in.
At least they know they are safe from relegation with Saracens bidding farewell to the Premiership in seven weeks’ time. But regardless, intrigue remains from top to bottom in the table, and after the longest wait, those questions are finally going to be answered.