Premiership rugby resumes on Friday after a long hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. Gavin Mairs assesses what fans should expect from an unusual second chapter to the campaign.
Same season, new faces
The 159 days since the Premiership was halted after just 13 rounds have brought significant changes in personnel, both in playing squads and coaching teams. It is an injection of news faces and talent that creates an intriguing new dimension.
The most high-profile signings have come at Sale Sharks and Bristol, both serious contenders for the title. Manu Tuilagi makes his Sale debut against Harlequins on Friday. Bristol’s acquisition of Semi Radradra and Kyle Sinckler will give Pat Lam the ammunition to go hard after league leaders Exeter Chiefs.
Radradra is box-office, arguably the best all-round attacking threat in the game, while Sinckler will add ballast and ball-carrying prowess.
Yet the intrigue is not restricted to the top-four battle. Steve Borthwick’s appointment at Leicester Tigers, second from bottom, is likely to be the most significant of all, with the expectation that the highly-respected former England coach can spark a revival.
It will be fascinating, too, to see how players integrate into new clubs after just a few weeks, and deal with the prospect of facing their former team-mates, as Chris Ashton must do tonight when he makes his debut for Quins.
Fresh and raring to go
The impact of the five-month break should not be underestimated. Lockdown presented all of us with challenges and worries, and player morale has been tested by furloughing and enforced pay cuts. And yet, as one senior club coach pointed out, it is the first time in their professional careers that players have enjoyed such a break from the game, and that has yielded many benefits. There has been time to overcome injury niggles, work on specific areas of fitness and improve game knowledge, and understanding on and off-field goals.
A lot of focus has been on the impact on player welfare heading into what is now a 12-month season, and the demands of managing midweek fixtures during the completion of this campaign. And yet the benefits of a five-month pre-season, instead of the five-week break normally afforded to the league’s internationals, could yield major benefits for club and country, as long as players are managed properly.
The players are returning fit and raring to go for the tail end of a campaign when, without the lockdown, many would have been struggling at the end of a World Cup season.
From an England perspective, Eddie Jones will get his players together for the return of the Six Nations on Oct 31 with plenty of rugby under their belts and some potentially in prime condition, having peaked for Premiership and European Champions Cup finals earlier that month.
Attack, attack, attack
There is significant optimism that the change in emphasis of the refereeing of the breakdown will have a major impact on the speed of the ball, as well as improving player safety. Officiating at the breakdown had become too rewarding for the attacking side, so there are likely to be more turnovers. The jackler, the first defender to enter the breakdown who attempts to win the ball, is to be given more of a chance to execute a turnover and the result should see more unstructured play and create broken field attacks.
Before the lockdown, a jackler was often told by the referee that he had not survived the clean-out by the attacking side. Now there will be greater reward if he shows he is attempting to lift the ball off the floor and likely to be more penalties awarded for the ball carrier holding on to the ball.
Firm pitches should also make for more of a high-tempo game than we would have seen in March.
The referees have also used the extraordinary circumstances of the past five months to attempt to improve communication and law education, which should hopefully result in improved officiating following an initiative by Tony Spreadbury, the Rugby Football Union’s head of professional game match officials.
Referees returned to full-time training at Twickenham on July 1, and have held weekly Zoom calls, with each other and with club directors of rugby, forwards coaches and team managers.
A decision has been taken for the officials to operate in the same pods of four or five referees and assistant referees to improve standards.
“We see a number of benefits, one is consistency – everyone knows what is expected of each other and everyone knows how each other operates,” said RFU referee Craig Maxwell-Keys. “It will also improve openness and transparency.”
Young guns to get a chance
The task of playing a Premiership match on average once every four days is going to test even the deepest squads in the country, and the consequence will mean young talent is given an opportunity it may not have had in a regular campaign. This could lead on occasion to more one-sided contests, but given that Saracens are already relegated because of their salary-cap breaches, there is an opportunity for more clubs to experiment, too.
It is here that Jones will be watching on with particular interest. The England head coach is keen to develop new depth to his squad, and post-lockdown opportunities could allow young players to thrust themselves into his plans for the 2023 World Cup in France.
Yes, rugby is back and despite all the problems in the world, it is something at last to celebrate.