Play­ing it safe

Re­vealed: The strict guide­lines for Pre­mier­ship clubs to restart season

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - By Gavin Mairs CHIEF RUGBY CORRESPOND­ENT

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 Bears, both se­ri­ous con­tenders for the ti­tle. Manu Tuilagi makes his Sale de­but against Har­lequins tonight. 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, im­prove game knowl­edge, and un­der­stand 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 rest of the 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 jack­aller, 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 bro­ken-field at­tacks.

Be­fore the lock­down, a jack­aller 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 there are 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 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 that of­fi­cials will 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 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.

Box-of­fice Bear: Bris­tol’s Semi Radradra car­ries a po­tent threat from the wing

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