Premiership faces a watershed season when drifting is no longer enough
Every now and again on social media a video clip will emerge of a lonely surfer trying to catch a skyscraper-high wave off the coast of Portugal. Time it right and the long ride down is truly epic. Get it slightly wrong and the consequences of that misjudgment do not bear thinking about.
In many ways the 2022-23 Premiership season feels broadly similar. Increasingly there are jagged financial rocks everywhere and the game’s physicality continues to make it unsuitable for the faint of heart.
But when everything clicks and talent is fully allowed to express itself few team sports are more compulsively watchable. Take a risk and the rewards can be significant.
Therein lies the shared challenge for all concerned as the new Premiership campaign hoves into view. Club rugby union has reached a point where, for assorted reasons, it badly needs to make a collective splash. Drifting around in the commercial shallows, not particularly bothered if it catches the eye, is no longer enough.
While that does not necessarily mean razzle-dazzle rugby for the sake if it, it does require the game to do more to showcase its appealing side.
With a cost-of-living crisis looming, there is no avoiding reality: the product simply has to be entertaining enough to leave everyone clamouring for more.
If this does not obviously chime with Johann van Graan’s plan to rebuild a damaged Bath one carefully laid breeze block at a time, the Bears’ director of rugby, Pat Lam, is convinced that style also matters. “Winning is one thing but the way you play is just as important,” he says. “The way we do things, the values of the game, the style of the game.”
If there is nothing remotely uplifting on the field to balance the grim stories of concussion, poor ownership and abuse of officials, what is ultimately the point? There were blasts of genuine electricity last season, not least at Northampton, who were playing some scintillating stuff in the closing weeks of the campaign. Dave Walder, now in charge at Newcastle with Dean Richards having stepped aside, also wants the Falcons to spread their wings while Wasps, if and when injuries permit, can be as fun to watch as anyone.
London Irish are in the same bracket: had they won their five drawn matches last season they would have been in or around the playoffs. It also makes little sense not to give youthful talents such as Henry Arundell and Will Joseph a chance to shine. Front-foot rugby also suits Harlequins, at their best when Marcus Smith and Danny Care are whirling their batons, and a recharged Bristol, for whom the former Sale fly-half AJ MacGinty could be a shrewd signing.
Playing it fast and loose is not compulsory, clearly, but Lam reckons there is a further reason why this year’s league will be worth watching. “I think the season going into a World Cup is always the best because every player is motivated to go. The Premiership is home to players from many countries and all of them will be aiming to be at their best. It’s the big dream for players – it was in our day and it still is. It makes the competition more exciting – and tougher.”
The flipside is that no one can go all out for the next 14 months without resting at some stage. While Ellis Genge has been cleared to play in round one, desperate not to miss out on his Bristol homecoming, a number of England squad members will be unavailable for large chunks because of increased clashes with international weekends.
It means the Tigers, with Genge and George Ford both departed, will frequently have to soldier on without Freddie Steward, Ollie Chessum, Jack van Poortvliet and Ben Youngs, not to mention Wales’s Tommy Reffell, South Africa’s Jasper Wiese and Argentina’s Julián Montoya, at various times.
Saracens, too, will be anxiously awaiting Eddie Jones’s autumn squad selections. With Billy Vunipola now back in red rose favour alongside the club’s usual posse of England candidates, their squad depth will be tested during the regular season even if the former Harlequins second-row Hugh Tizard looks the shrewdest of new recruits.
Which leaves the door potentially ajar for one or two others to gatecrash the playoffs. Gloucester are still meant to be a year or two away from full maturation, with Zach Mercer not due back in the UK from Montpellier until next season. George Skivington is clearly a man with a plan, however, and the welcome return of Jake Polledri from long-term injury is another handy bonus.
Add in the raw emotional edge generated by the popular Ed Slater’s diagnosis with motor neurone disease and the Cherry and Whites, quoted at a generous 16-1, should improve on last season’s fifth-placed finish.
The bookmakers rate Exeter, Sale and Quins as more likely champion material but all three face a battle merely to reach the playoffs as they seek to refresh now-familiar gameplans.
Worcester? Simply staying alive as a going concern has to be the overriding priority. Otherwise the murky crystal ball suggests Saracens, Gloucester, Leicester and Northampton as the playoff contenders to catch when the time comes to ride the tallest, most exhilarating waves next May.