Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

The Breakdown | There has never been a Premiership run-in quite like this one
Rugby union Sport

The Breakdown | There has never been a Premiership run-in quite like this one

In the minutes after Harlequins’ Champions Cup semi-final defeat by Toulouse on Sunday, the sense of frustration, of missed opportunity, was palpable. To a man they believed they would have pulled off the greatest European victory in their history without making quite so many first-half mistakes. “You know that emoji with the monkey face? That’s how I feel,” said Danny Care. “We genuinely felt we could get close against a team as good as Toulouse and could have won. Maybe we should have. Now it’s back to the Premiership and we’ve got to dry our tears pretty quickly.”

They then made a hurried exit stage left, promptly drying those tears because they face a trip to Exeter on Saturday, a six-day turnaround for a match that will go a long way to determining whether they reach the Premiership semi-finals. If they win it then the same could be said for their final regular-season match, against Bristol. It is quite the run of fixtures for Quins, but then most of the sides in the top eight of the leagueface the same predicament.

With two rounds of the regular season remaining Northampton top the pile on 55 points, while two points separate Saracens in second and Harlequins in fifth. Exeter, in seventh, are four points further back and even eighth-placed Leicester can still make the playoffs.

Only Gloucester – who can console themselves with having reached the Challenge Cup final – and Newcastle, who have lost all 16 of their matches so far can be considered completely out of the playoff race. Indeed, Newcastle’s unwanted perfect record can be taken as one of a number of contributing factors to such a blanket finish to the season insofar as all other sides have consistently taken points off them.

But why else? There have been whipping boys before but not a cluster such as this in which six of the top seven clubs have either nine or 10 wins, with Northampton out in front on 11. As a result, bonus points are likely to have a crucial say in who reaches the playoffs, but the fact they have been easier to come by with more tries scored throughout the campaign has played its part in contributing to a tight league. It is not entirely a coincidence that Northampton and Harlequins, traditionally teams who favour expansive rugby, went furthest of the Premiership sides in the Champions Cup and clearly attack-minded approaches are being better rewarded. Indeed, World Rugby’s council will meet this week to rubber-stamp law amendments and tweaks designed to further speed the game up and make it more easy on the eye.

Alex Dombrandt of Harlequins tackled by Lewis Ludlam of Northampton Saints in last month’s clash between the sides.View image in fullscreen

Clearly the absence of promotion and relegation is having an impact, so too the lowering of the salary cap. Both have levelled the playing field, made for a more bloated middle with only Newcastle cut adrift at the bottom and no one storming clear at the front of the race.

On the topic of Newcastle, it was the head coach, Alex Codling, who lost his patience with the club’s owners after defeat by Leicester in December, spoke out and was soon shown the door. He raised the significant point of how the Falcons would historically pick up points while other clubs were missing their internationals. Barring a few weeks at the start of the season and the odd week here and there immediately before the Six Nations or mandated rest weeks, England players have been available for the most part, with domestic and international fixtures no longer clashing as they did.

That, in turn, led to a relentless run of 16 straight weeks of Premiership and Champions or Challenge Cup matches between mid-October and the Six Nations. As Northampton’s director of rugby, Phil Dowson, recalled last week: “Brutal, week in, week out. No player is going to play every minute out of that and if they do they’re not going to play particularly well, or they’re going to get injured.” That means rotation and, while that can sometimes lead to mismatches, across a whole season it tends to encourage a more competitive league because no one is pulling clear from the pack.

skip past newsletter promotion

Of course, a situation where domestic and international fixtures do not clash has only come about because Wasps, Worcester and London Irish have gone to the wall. With the greatest respect to the Warriors, that took one of the weaker sides out of the league but, far more significantly, bolstered a number of other clubs’ playing squads. Harlequins benefited with the captures of Chandler Cunningham-South, Will Joseph and Joe Launchbury, Northampton with the arrivals of Fin Smith, Tom Pearson and Curtis Langdon. But they were not the only ones and that too has made for a more competitive Premiership. As Care added: “It’s unfortunate with three teams folding but it’s made it very tight which is great for the competition. Anyone can beat anyone, which makes it exciting. We’d love to be in a position where we’re guaranteed a top four space but unfortunately that’s not the case.”

But if we can be certain that the Premiership has never been tighter, can we be sure that the quality has risen as a result? Do more tries necessarily make for a better product? Or has less spending power and no jeopardy of relegation rewarded mediocrity? That Northampton and Harlequins reached the Champions Cup semi-finals would say not, but the fact that Premiership Rugby was unable to negotiate the kind of TV deal it had hoped for suggests that a league with a bloated middle is not for everyone.

  • This is an extract taken from our weekly rugby union email, the Breakdown. To sign up, just visit this page and follow the instructions.

Source: theguardian.com