Domestic rugby’s return feels more like the resumption of a tennis match after rain than a whole new season
Less than a month after the conclusion of the 2019-20 Premiership season, English domestic rugby cranks itself up again this weekend for the start of the next. Such are the times in which we live.
Every civilised norm in the matter of a collision sport’s player welfare has been necessarily violated, but bar the odd scratched fixture, occasionally of some significance, the Premiership has managed to play out its commitments where others have failed – or perhaps have done the right thing.
In England, the sacrilege of the midweek fixture has been embraced in the rush to finish “last season”. And now something less than the mandatory five weeks of total rest has been observed in order to stand a chance of completing this one by its due finish date in late June. Just as the British & Irish Lions start to limber up for South Africa.
At least the issue of form is easier to address for this “new” season. The usual comings and goings of the transfer market – low-key anyway this year and largely a function of who was prepared to give a Saracen a home – played out during the summer and thus are already established from the tail end of last season. There have been a few since – notably, Richard Wigglesworth to Leicester – but the teams are settled.
One big difference is the absence of Saracens, who are taking most of their A-listers with them into purgatory, underscored by the fact there will likely be no rugby in the Championship this season, posing all sorts of troubling logistical questions about promotion and relegation.
There has been a noticeable softening in the attitude of the Premiership towards Saracens lately, not least because of the box office. BT, CVC and even European Professional Club Rugby may be understandably unhappy about the absence of Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell et al, from their various properties for what could be three years in the case of European competition. Hence the leaking of an imminent fudge, which will see Saracens readmitted to the Premiership next season, possibly without so much as swinging a boot in anger. |There are even suggestions that Saracens’ relegation would be reversed altogether – but they have been abandoned on the grounds of practicality.
Newcastle will replace them for now, restoring rugby’s presence in the north-east of England. Their last competitive match was in March, but for the rest of the clubs this season feels much like the resumption of a tennis match following a rain delay. Will form lines be maintained or disrupted?
Exeter, champions of both England and Europe, will hope the former – and can expect it, given they remain almost as untouched by Eddie Jones as they have been by the virus. Wasps, too, are in the ascendancy, as to a lesser degree are Harlequins, who host Exeter for the season opener on Friday night. Northampton, meanwhile, will hope for the reverse, their form having so suddenly fallen away since the resumption of last season.
If there is to be relegation in June, predictions remain difficult. Newcastle made the top four only the season before last so will not go gently. London Irish hope the move into their new home at Brentford inspires an upturn in form. Leicester would have been relegated last time out, but for Saracens’ punishment. The letting go of Geordan Murphy after all those years is but their latest attempt to transform ailing fortunes.
The other usual suspects, Worcester, go into the season in mourning. Millionaire owners can get a bad press, but the good ones are vital not only to their clubs but to their sport and communities. Cecil Duckworth was one of those. Worcester’s former chairman died in this little window between seasons, but his understated influence on English rugby and beyond will endure.