It has been 154 days since the oval ball was last thrown in anger, but now the wait is finally over as Premiership rugby returns next week, writes Andrew Clayton.
The very last match to be played, a 28-15 result for Bristol over Harlequins on March 8, brought the intermission curtain down on the English top tier as the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded across the country.
While anxiety bubbled up over the Premiership’s immediate future, and whether this season could be resumed, its very structure was also questioned as clubs braced for no revenue, and rumours circulated of some eyeing a breakaway.
However, everyone has stuck with the system for now and, after more than five months away from it, the sport is back on our screens. This Friday, August 14, has been rubber-stamped for resumption with Harlequins and Sale starting up proceedings at The Stoop.
Matches will be played behind closed doors, although simmering threats from the Government still hint at a second ban on social gatherings, potentially putting paid to any plans for bringing fans back into stadiums before the season close.
With nine games left to the campaign, plus the play-offs, teams will be asked to play matches just four days apart, with full expectation that the competition will rumble on into October.
For those teams in the South West, there is all to play for. All four get stuck back in on Saturday with home ties for Bath, Bristol and Exeter, and a short trip to Worcester for Gloucester. Chiefs come into the restart on top, but know that the title is no divine right.
It may as well be a new season for the players and their coaches, where any previous form is a distant memory and, for some clubs, they will have new teammates to join in the melee.
Now that all of the correct measures have been put in place, it’s finally time to shake off the cobwebs and get back to action.
EXETER V LEICESTER
The current league leaders will know from first-hand experience that a Premiership title is never guaranteed.
Despite reaching the play-offs in top spot for the previous two seasons, Exeter could only watch as those two prospective titles slipped between their fingers and into those of Saracens’.
This season, there is no chance of the Sarries challenging, having been resigned to the Championship for their salary cap transgressions, and with nine wins from 13 it has been a reasonably comfortable romp to the top for Chiefs.
To say that the title is theirs, even during their most purple of patches this season, would still be jumping the gun. Surprise contenders Sale and West Country rivals Bristol will fancy their chances and could spring a surprise come October.
The Devonians have made no less than seven new signings to bolster their ranks going forward. Initially brought on board for the 2020-21 campaign, the group might be chiefly composed of back-up bodies but can still be called upon for this title race, where each man can play his part.
Rob Baxter has clearly looked toward the future with the arrival of hot talents in Corey Baldwin from Scarlets, Aaron Hinkley from Gloucester, Josh Hodge from Newcastle Falcons and Jack Walsh from Manly in Australia. Expect the infallible Jonny Gray to forge a partnership with fellow Scot Sam Skinner or Jonny Hill in the second row, while Spanish-born Sam Hidalgo-Clyne,
another Scottish representative, fills the berth left by Nic White at number nine.
Leicester, meanwhile, have had to make signings of their own after being rocked by a number of big-name departures, including the likes of Manu Tuilagi and Jonny May to Sale and Gloucester respectively.
While last year’s close survival has been their worst Premiership moment yet, there is a quietly desperate optimism at Welford Road. On the touchline, former England forwards specialist Steve Borthwick has taken on the head coach role from Geordan Murphy, the Irishman since promoted to director of rugby. Saracens’ relegation guarantees the Tigers’ survival, and the challenge for Borthwick will be to dispel any complacency amongst the squad.
On paper, the stars are aligned for Exeter to finally claim that elusive second title. It is by no means guaranteed, and although this pandemic brought the Chiefs train to a halt, it should not take long to get the wheels turning once again.
BRISTOL V SARACENS
The phrase ‘statement of intent’ is one that Bristol Bears supporters have become accustomed to when reading about their beloved club.
The Ashton Gate outfit have made so many major signings in recent months that it is little surprise that their owner, billionaire Steve Lansdown, voiced his opposition to salary cap reform earlier this year.
England prop Kyle Sinckler and Fijian wing Semi Radradra have long been expected by the Premiership high flyers, but additions like Bath scrum-half Chris Cook, Saracens duo Max Malins and Ben Earl, fan favourite Mitch Eadie, Ulster hooker Brian Byrne and, for next season, rugby league sensation Ratu Naulago, will only strengthen an already sharp-looking squad.
The formal opening of their brand new, 23-acre training facility on Friday (see story right) straps another booster on the rocket Bristol seem to be riding, burning off their reputation as a club which previously had a knack of stalling. What comes next, however, is the hard part – winning trophies.
Pat Lam, who has been in charge for three years, is a symbol for the kind of commitment Lansdown was prepared to put into the club. It has been a commitment which has paid off, as the former Samoan international steered Bears to ninth last year, their best Premiership finish in more than a decade, and kicked off this season with a bang.
A fantastic start was followed by a dip throughout December, garnering three of their four league defeats, but Lam had things quickly turned around before their form could truly fizzle out.
Enter Saracens. The London club would be second in other circumstances and it is clear that, although there might not be anything to play for, their 47-13 humbling of the Bears back in December showed that they are still trying to prove the point.
The disgraced champions were braced for a mass exodus this summer, and while the damage could have been much worse – less than half of last year’s play-off winning squad will depart as it stands, almost all on loan – they will be missing key members. Malins and Earl together bagged three of the tries which sunk Bristol last year, undoubtedly a factor in their switch to BS3.
Ultimately, Lam knows just how deadly a Mark McCall side can be, regardless of who is in the Sarries’ first XV. The manner in which Bristol approach this game could set the tempo for the rest of their campaign.
BATH V LONDON IRISH
Stuart Hooper’s men play excellent, passing rugby. They possess a squad of internationals and seasoned pros who know how to dictate a game. So why can’t they get the ball over the try line?
Given that his managerial capability was something of an unknown quantity coming into the role, Hooper has done a good job so far.
Despite facing a squad riddled by injury toward the end of last year, Bath weathered the storm by grinding out results and the skipper-turned-coach has at least maintained the status quo set by predecessor Todd Blackadder, with the side sitting in sixth place before the Premiership restart.
Hooper’s most realistic aim, not ignoring financial propsects after months of little revenue, will be to qualify for the Champions Cup, and there is no reason why the Blue, Black and White cannot achieve this.
Behind the scenes, the club has had to work hard during lockdown to keep the whole squad on song, after some players reportedly showed antagonism at the prospect of a pay cut, although it seems as if those quarrels have since been settled.
New additions like Leicester lock Will Spencer and South African prop Juan Schoeman add a bit of beef to the pack and Saracens’ Ben Spencer will look to make the number nine shirt his own, while keeping hold of Josh Matavesi was always a good decision.
Now comes the task of putting it all together. At 241, only Leicester and Worcester have scored less points than Bath, and the Somerset outfit have crossed the try line just 24 times – nine less than London Irish, their next opponents.
Admittedly, not every game can be won by repeatedly flinging the ball out to the wings. The Rec is known for demanding attritional play and, on 111 points, Rhys Priestland has certainly been doing his bit from the tee.
But, as Hooper himself would admit, there is room for improvement. With such a wealth of talent in the backs, and all of them fit for the restart, that quality could make the difference.
What better precedent to follow then, than the last time London Irish and Bath met? The Somerset crew enjoyed their largest points haul at the Madejski in a 38-10 victory, tries from Beno Obano, Anthony Watson, Semesa Rokoduguni, Will Chudley and Tom Homer securing that result.
On paper, all the trappings for success are there at Bath – the fans know it, and so do the players, at least going by the expectations of club captain Charlie Ewels: “We have an end goal. We are thinking about October 24 and the Premiership final at Twickenham, so all the games count for the same number of points and that is our goal and as much as we will miss having the supporters near, we know they will be supporting us from afar.”
WORCESTER V GLOUCESTER
If the plan for many Premiership clubs was to just keep quiet during the lockdown period, Gloucester threw it right out the window.
The Kingsholm outfit have gone through complete upheaval over the last four months, as head coach Johan Ackermann, director of rugby David Humphreys and skills coach Rory Teague left with nine games still left of the season.
In the dressing room, Tom Marshall, Owen Williams and, after his short loan spell ends, Franco Marais will follow Ackermann to Red Hurricanes in the Japanese Top League.
Meanwhile, Callum Braley, Franco Mostert, Gerbrant Grobler and Josh Hohneck are also out the door to try their luck abroad.
It is nothing less than a challenge then for new head coach, George Skivington, to turn things around, having put his own acrimonious exit from London Irish to bed.
Although he is young, and the Kingsholm hot seat is his first senior role, Skivington brings his own twist of experience to the job. A year under Steve Jackson for the Samoan national team, taking on the 2019 World Cup, interspersed four years as a forwards coach at the Madejski.
With that in mind, backed by the addition of attack coach Alex King, taking a good look at the pack will be right up there on Skivington’s agenda, just one of the myriad of tasks pinned to his drawing board.
The return of Marais and May are certainly welcome ones, but it is clear that Gloucester are in need of a wholesale refresh.
An unfortunate trait of Ackermann’s teams was that they struggled to get things going early on in some matches, and Skivington has already come out to say that he will demand consistency from this squad.
Lockdown arrested their horrendous six-game losing streak, a spell that has seriously cast doubt on their European chances as they travel to Worcester in ninth. While the rebuild may not start at Sixways, it could still be an indicator of things to come – and a chance to settle the dust.