We’re 3 rounds into the return of Premiership Rugby following the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and if I’m being completely honest, I couldn’t care less! Almost as soon as the competition went on hiatus, my feelings were that the season should just be considered null and void and preparations should be made for the 2020/21 season. And while I have really tried to give the competition a chance, the action we’re seeing is making me feel that I was right.
The season should have been over months ago, so in order to cause minimal disruption to the next season, the remaining games are being crammed into the shortest time possible. While this may work fr a limited contact game like football, the body needs time to recover and this is a nightmare for player well-being, as teams are having up to 3 matches in a week. What this is leading to is heavy rotation within teams between matches, and this has taken away any point of these games being competitive. Bristol’s rotation saw them put out a largely 2ⁿᵈ string (if no weaker) side against a Sale team that was close to its ideal XV. That Sale ran away with the game says nothing about their ability and everything about the lineups being used, while we had similar in Exeter’s demolition of Worcester and Bath’s win at Leicester. Even in Gloucester’s match against Tigers this weekend, the game was a rout in the first half until Tigers brought their stars off the bench and Gloucester took their big names off to keep them fresh. Yes, we as fans want to see tries, but we don’t want to see a team having a glorified training session running though a vastly inferior lineup. Alex Shaw put it best on Twitter when he asked if the integrity of the individual matches being sacrificed (uneven squads) to maintain integrity of the competition (play whole fixture list), and I can’t help feel that the answer is yes, which as a result is ruining the spectacle of such a good competition, while now a team may also make the playoffs thanks to playing a number of weakened teams at the expense of a better team who continually faced XVs that were close to the ideal selection. There is no easy way to get around all this, and it will leave questions over whoever wins the competition, which could have been avoided by having an extended preseason to prepare for 2020/21.
Considering the amount of international rugby coming in the next 12 months – the Home Nations have the Autumn Tests, Summer Tests, the remains of the 2020 Six Nations, the 2021 Six Nations and the British and Irish Lions Tour to South Africa – the rest caused by a longer preseason would have benefited everybody, while also allowing players to adapt to the new interpretation of the breakdown, which has only further ruined the early weeks of matches as penalties are given continuously while players learn the limits of the officials’ tolerance.
The issue of player selection doesn’t even just come down to squad rotation, but also the players available to pick from. Due to the season having gone longer than usual, player contracts expired, and that has led to a number of players moving clubs mid-season (like Ben Spencer’s transfer from Saracens to Bath), leaving the league altogether (Will Skelton), signing short-term contracts to stay with the club until the end of the current season (Franco Marais), signing short-term deals with a new club until the end of this season (Matt Garvey, who is currently with Gloucester after leaving Bath) or entering the league midway through the season (Jonny Gray). Even the players Saracens are loaning out when they are in the Championship next season are already playing for their new clubs! What this has led to is completely different squads – especially when you look at the turnover at a club like Leicester – competing in this final stretch of the season, including the playoffs, and giving a completely different feel to this final stretch. You just have to look at Northampton’s struggles since the restart after being one of the best teams in the league pre-COVID to see how heavily impacted this season has been, and as such it doesn’t feel like a continuation of what came before.
Obviously, I understand that with a league that is not ring-fenced, I understand that usually the league season would need to be completed if only to see who would be relegated, but this season that was not an issue as Saracens were already officially relegated as their punishment for years of cheating by breaching the salary cap. I would argue that the Sarries case even added to the argument to make the season null and void as if you look back at the lineups they were putting out before the lockdown, they were heavily varied first as they looked to try building up enough points to avoid relegation despite the initial points deduction, before then resting a their first XV as they switched their attention to Europe. How would it have been fair if a spot in the playoff was decided by one team beating Sarries’ 3ʳᵈ XV while another lost to their 1ˢᵗ XV? With Saracens relegated, it would have been easy enough to declare the season null and void, relegate Saracens – with Newcastle coming up in their place – and then using last season’s standings (with teams below Saracens pushed up a spot) to decide who qualified for the 2020/21 Champions Cup. It may be harsh on teams who improved this year, but it seems that it would have been a fairer way to do things.
Instead, we’re stuck watching 1ˢᵗ XVs piling on the points against glorified A-League lineups in empty grounds that takes away home advantage, while being forced to listen to awful manufactured crowd noise. Coming off the back of Super Rugby Aotearoa, it looks an absolute shambles.
Unfortunately, what is right is not he priority for the RFU or Premiership Rugby. We see all the time that the organisations only care about what will get them money or keep them safe, as seen by the loss of contracts for the England 7s program, or the way that deserving teams like Georgia never get a shot in Tier 1 tournaments but Japan buy their way into SANZAAR competitions. The league season is being finished, the competition put in jeopardy and players put at risk is just for money, and that has to change if we want the rugby to go to the next level.