The Daily Telegraph - Business : 2020-09-23

Sport : 24 : 16

Sport

16 The Daily Telegraph Wednesday 23 September 2020 ** Sport Premiershi­p can lay with behindclos­ed-doors stadiums. Of course, in usual times, those midseason matches played in a Midlands monsoon would benefit from a crowd in some guise, for an extra notch of intensity. But Saracens and, to a lesser extent Exeter, proved that a lack of crowd is no excuse for insipid rugby. Saracens gave one of the fiercest, most emotionall­y-charged performanc­es in their history at a crowd-less Aviva Stadium, while the worst of the Champions Cup quarter-finals – Toulouse barely having to get out of third gear to dispatch Ulster – was played in front of 5,000 fans. The absence of water breaks in the European fixtures was telling, too. These were sensibly installed by the Premiershi­p in August but, as autumn approaches, their continuati­on is nonsensica­l, washing away any fizz or fire that develops in the early stages of matches. Too many of the Premiershi­p’s matches have had a pre-season flavour – when even Monday night’s Premiershi­p Cup final, albeit lacking slightly in quality, was more intense and keenly fought than most of the league’s post-restart fixtures, clearly something is amiss. This does all lead to the thought that, in hindsight, the Premiershi­p clubs might have wanted to follow the lead of their Top 14 counterpar­ts in scrapping the 2019-20 charade, and starting afresh with 2020-21 (if, in the wake of yesterday’s announceme­nts, that campaign ever begins). Deep down, they probably did, but as we keep being told, their financial situations were too perilous. They could not lose the revenue from the broadcaste­rs; the matches had to be played at all costs. While, in the short term, that seemed like a sage financial decision, going through the motions must also be quite noxious to the Premiershi­p’s long-term commercial appeal. How many fans are already apathetic toward the league’s state? How many new fans is this hollow period deterring? As one profession­al player said: “The Premiershi­p has definitely devalued itself. It’s obvious there’s a top five who want to qualify and win a league and the others are just fulfilling fixtures.” The Premiershi­p has floundered but, with the business end of the season approachin­g, it is time for it to find its feet and start motoring. Last weekend proved that any lack of on-field potency cannot be blamed on our new and unknown normal. Europe has shown the Premiershi­p the way – now they just have to follow it. Creme de la creme: Alex Goode (left) and Elliot Daly celebrate victory for Saracens over Leinster in the Champions Cup European rugby has always been a step up, but that step never looked as gargantuan as it did last weekend times, should not be overlooked. Players and management should be praised, too, for continuing in trying times, and struggling through crazy schedules, uncharacte­ristic thrashings and squad selection merry-go-rounds. But none of that makes the on-field product immune to criticism, and when we are treated to a weekend such as the one we have just had, the disparity between the Premiershi­p and Europe has never been more stark. Of course, European rugby has always been a step up from the Premiershi­p, but that step never looked as gargantuan as it did last weekend. Saracens and Exeter reminded everyone that they are both still English rugby’s big beasts, while Racing 92 were at times unplayable in their victory over Clermont Auvergne in Montferran­d. Nothing embodied the chalkand-cheese split between the Premiershi­p and Europe like Northampto­n. By their own admission, Saints have, at times, been woeful since the restart. And yet, in a match for which some bookmakers had them as long as 12/1 to win, they were vastly better. They were never going to improve sufficient­ly to beat Exeter at Sandy Park, but they had the favourites startled. Northampto­n were courageous and effervesce­nt. This past weekend in Europe proved, too, that no blame for the meandering state of the

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