Not everyone will be aware that this week is the end of an era. From next season rugby union’s fixture calendar is due to change, with the 2020 Premiership final pushed back to 20 June and summer tours spilling over into July. The new season will not commence until late October because of the Rugby World Cup and the rhythm of the domestic professional game will feel significantly different.
For many it is an uncomfortable development, not least from a scheduling perspective. This weekend is bad enough: the Exeter v Saracens final will clash, in no particular order, with the Champions League final, the early stages of the Cricket World Cup, Anthony Joshua’s latest big fight, the French Open tennis and the Derby from Epsom. Next year it will be similarly buried, coverage-wise, beneath football’s European Championship, Royal Ascot and the build-up to Wimbledon. In 2021 the final is slated for 26 June when the nights will already be growing shorter.
Midsummer madness? If you are looking to create a step change in how rugby is perceived it certainly represents a sizeable obstacle. Selling rugby in deepest midwinter with few other competing attractions has its own challenges but imagine shifting your flagship tournament and then discovering everyone is too preoccupied to notice? It is not a scenario designed to bathe club rugby’s new investors in a warm fuzzy glow.
It also makes it more critical than ever that rugby pays closer attention to how it promotes itself. The prospect of a sunny Twickenham playing host to England’s two best club teams used to be enough on its own; the last few years, in particular, have been blessed with good weather and coincided with half-term, ensuring plenty of children can attend. The promotional build-up, though, has altered little since the days of the old John Player Cup: a handful more grizzled hacks than usual at the pre-game media days but barely anything in the way of nationwide hoopla. The Super Bowl it ain’t.
This year should, by rights, be huge. Saracens are one of the great big occasion teams, gunning for a seriously impressive double. Exeter are bang up for it and their supporters will fill the Twickenham air with more than enough good-humoured chanting – “Ooh-aarrrgh, we are Exe-terr!” - to ensure a good atmosphere. With the European Champions’ Cup final having already come and gone, though, there is a slight sense of domestic rugby overstaying its welcome when it spills over into June, even by a day. How will everyone feel this time next year with three further weeks still to go?
And the deeper into the summer months it ventures, the greater the knock-on effect in terms of rugby’s preferred identity. If the game wishes to be viewed as more of a futuristic, fair-weather sport, will its intended new short-sleeved, bare-chested audience be satisfied with a product still primarily tailored for midwinter? No one is suggesting manufactured razzle-dazzle and pom-poms are the way ahead or that 9-6 games cannot be great viewing. Only a Barbarians head coach would suggest these days that his team’s primary duty is to entertain. But Northampton’s Chris Boyd was right this week to suggest English rugby needs more teams prepared to play a little more off the cuff rather than simply playing the percentages. It could yet be the lawmakers will have to be more creative.
No one, for example, wants to see endless prolonged scrum re-sets or ridiculous caterpillar rucks that allow half-backs to fiddle around endlessly before booting the ball skywards in the vague hope of winning it back. Is that the future of professional rugby entertainment? Ditto the inevitable kicks to the corner in the opponents’ 22 that have effectively made tap penalties redundant and prompted a marked rise in repeated head-down, battering-ram charges into a thicket of defenders that cannot help the welfare of players on either side.
The end-of-season Premiership stats may continue to show fewer penalties and drop-goals (just two of them all season, both of them from Bath’s Freddie Burns) yet in many respects the game is growing more formulaic. Watching Northampton’s Dan Biggar kicking a delicious long spiral punt on Saturday was to glimpse a lost art; seeing poor Stuart Hogg taken out of his final Glasgow game by the kind of unnecessary aerial challenge that continues to blight rugby’s landscape was to be reminded yet again of the need to protect the game’s most skilful participants and give them more licence to thrill.
Hopefully this weekend’s Twickenham final will hit that vital sweet spot. Just as likely is that it will continue to highlight issues – not least around the breakdown contest and the gainline – where the laws are being flagrantly ignored. Line speed is all very well but not if the players start from a position level with the opposing No 8. Whatever happened to would-be tacklers supporting their own weight around the tackle area? And so on. Until the most oft-asked question at rugby grounds ceases to be “What was that penalty for?” there will be no mass midsummer migration from Ascot, Lord’s and Wimbledon.
Injuries take toll on Pocock
No sooner has one great Wallaby flanker called it a day than Australian domestic rugby is poised to lose another. David Pocock, among the finest back-rows of the professional era, is not yet following George Smith into full retirement but is now set to return to Japan following this autumn’s World Cup, cutting his ties with Super Rugby having played just 138 competitive minutes this season. Neck and calf injuries have taken their toll and the modern game offers little respite but, regardless of how Australia fare in Japan, Pocock already ranks among the all-time Wallaby greats.
One to watch
Twickenham will be a hectic place this weekend, not least on Sunday when the stadium plays host to an historic double-header involving both England’s men and women in fixtures against the Barbarians. England’s men’s XV will be without its biggest drawcards – Eddie Jones has even handed the coaching reins to Jim Mallinder - but several prominent names from the women’s game will be involved, not least Danielle Waterman and Tamara Taylor who are both due to make their Baa Baas debuts against the Red Roses. Double-header tickets priced from £20 for adults are available from englandrugby.com/tickets.