Anyone attending a Premiership match this weekend may find it worthwhile leafing through the programme. It may be a little bit shinier than usual as clubs go on the charm offensive, looking to bask in the Six Nations afterglow, and a chief executive or chairman may have something to say.
Twelve months ago it was the Saracens owner, Nigel Wray, who bemoaned the “rank stupidity” of the rugby calendar, describing a system whereby Premiership clubs lose their players to internationals for a large chunk of the season as “absolute nonsense”. Now, however, the tone is likely to be more upbeat. Changes to the calendar are due after the next World Cup so expect a degree of triumphalism and reassurance that from then on clubs will not be missing their international stars – this on the weekend that 19 of the England squad who lost to Ireland last Saturday return to action.
It would be a full house but Ben Te’o is absent for Worcester after a head injury in Dublin while Wasps are resting Joe Launchbury, Nathan Hughes and Elliot Daly – a commendable move by Dai Young with the caveat that his side are top of the table and still have Kurtley Beale et al to pull in the punters.
The clubs can hardly be blamed, though. They are, after all, the players’ paymasters and well aware that returning England players will boost not only performance but attendances. So it makes perfect sense. The Six Nations continues to grow in popularity – combined live TV audiences for the BBC and ITV totalled 24.9m – while the tournament was revealed at the start of the year to boast the highest average attendance per match in world sport.
“I think a lot of people don’t realise the quality of rugby played in the Premiership these days,” says the Exeter chairman, Tony Rowe. “It is a challenge. The conversation that we had at a recent Premiership board meeting was that in football people tend to know who the players belong to whereas in rugby a lot of people know players like Jack Nowell and Henry Slade but not necessarily what club they’re from.”
The worry, of course, is player welfare. Make no mistake, all those internationals who have been named by their clubs this weekend want to play. But with Premiership Rugby planning to lengthen the season after the 2019 World Cup from September to June as England’s summer tours move to July, the opportunity for international players to step off the treadmill will grow ever smaller.
No rules will be broken this weekend – the Professional Game Agreement signed last summer states that players who have played throughout the Six Nations and pass a rather oblique “threshold of minutes” will have at least one weekend off in the following four. But it raises the question: why not a mandatory rest this weekend? “The Six Nations is definitely getting more and more robust every year,” says the Rugby Players’ Association chief executive, Damian Hopley. “Last Saturday’s clash in Dublin was extraordinary. The physical barrage going on out there. I think clearly, in an ideal world, there would be downtime. But [the players] are desperate to get out there and play with their club mates whom they haven’t played with for a long time.
“I don’t think any club is in the business of putting players out who aren’t raring to go or in the right physical or mental frame of mind. There’s a compelling form of trust in terms of how the players are managed.”
So, having muddled through the last two months without their internationals, Premiership clubs now rouse themselves for the run-in. According to their former chief executive, now the deputy chairman, Nick Eastwood, it is no coincidence Wasps find themselves in with a chance of booking their play-off spot already this weekend. “Unless you have real surprises at the start of the season, you have to take it into account when you’re doing your recruitment,” he says.
“You need former internationals or southern hemisphere players who are of the quality but not in their Test setup but are there to offer cover for those periods. The regular season is about getting into the play-offs and, once there, it’s a two-phase shootout.”
Eastwood, meanwhile, has his doubts that the overlap between domestic and international matches can successfully be removed but Rowe is cautiously optimistic. “We should not have the situation whereby we’re trying to run our domestic calendar and make it fit around the internationals,” he says. “The reality is that I don’t think the RFU goes out of its way to accommodate the Premiership clubs. And at the end of the day, they are our assets. We loan the RFU our assets every year and rightly so because the lads want to play for their countries but sometimes it can be difficult working with the RFU in terms of player release. Some of the clubs are looking forward to their last four or five games when, if they have managed to get themselves in a reasonable position, they can go hell for leather.”
Among them will be Saracens, who have again tailed off without their Six Nations stars, losing to Worcester and Gloucester in consecutive weeks, but remain in third spot and host Bath, currently fourth, on Sunday. Below them are Leicester, a point ahead of Northampton, ensuring Saturday’s east Midlands derby, which would have been spicy enough without the unexpected news it is the last match of Aaron Mauger’s short spell in charge of the Tigers, will be even more highly charged. Harlequins, who welcome Newcastle to The Stoop on Saturday, also have designs on the top four and welcome back Chris Robshaw, who, after missing the Six Nations through injury, hopes to stake his claims for the Lions tour – another layer of intrigue for the run-in.
Premiership Rugby for its part, continues to grow in popularity. Attendances are up 6% year on year and TV audiences are up 24% year on year. Bumper crowds are expected in the coming weeks as Bath and Leicester square off at Twickenham while Saracens welcome Harlequins to Wembley and there is obvious optimism at soon avoiding being “second-rate citizens” as Wray put it, during the Six Nations, all the while taking into account concerns over player welfare. It all combines to form quite a cocktail, so do not forget to buy a programme.