Bad news for the more affectionate Premiership players on the eve of the new season – face-to-face try celebrations are still banned. Supporters can fill stadiums again – no Covid passports necessary – but pity the foolish front-rowers who fancy a post-match hug. Welcome to the contradictory world of modern sport.
That is not to pick holes in protocols nor point fingers at administrators, rather it is to illustrate the difficulties in plotting the uneasy route towards normality. Clubs can look forward to the new season with optimism all the while fearful of what another wave may entail as autumn turns to winter.
Even defining the “normality” the clubs strive for is no easy task and there is the sense that this will be a watershed season. Having known for months that there will be no relegation, all the 13 clubs have the opportunity to express themselves, even if Wasps, who have the first bye, must wait an extra week. There can be too much of a good thing but surely Harlequins’ thrilling run to the Premiership title is the blueprint, rather than the stodgy fare served up by the British & Irish Lions and South Africa.
The new law trials introduced this season would appear to be designed to help, but these tweaks have a habit of producing unintended consequences so the jury is out for now. Brexit, the financial impact of the pandemic, a lower salary cap and, of course, no relegation, have all combined to ensure this is not a season for star signings to light up the Premiership. The hope must be that ambition takes hold, that clubs realise the direction of travel is away from turgid heavyweight clashes against the backdrop of the potential lawsuit for head injuries facing the sport.
If that materialises, should clubs embrace a duty to entertain, in the longer term relegation is unlikely to return after its hiatus and the expectation is that it would benefit Eddie Jones and England. Jones gets an early chance to gauge progress – England are holding a training camp at the end of the month – which you imagine directors of rugby are not delighted about, even if the alignment between club and country is supposedly improving. But if the clubs are playing with intent, surely the onus on England to follow suit is greater.
In the shorter term, it could have a material benefit for clubs too because owners will be nervously awaiting attendances over the coming weeks. Bristol are expecting around 20,000 at Ashton Gate for Friday night’s curtain-raiser against the returning Saracens while Leicester, traditionally the best-supported club in the country, will be hoping for a decent crowd at Welford Road on Saturday.
They will be welcome numbers given how reliant clubs are on matchday revenue but attendances in the first week or two are likely to be down on two seasons ago. There are mitigating reasons – some clubs did not start selling tickets until later than usual, others traditionally start the season slowly before interest grows. But anecdotal evidence suggests there is reluctance among some supporters to attend mass events and an emphasis on attacking rugby would do no harm in persuading them.
To that end, there are reasons to be positive. The defending champions Harlequins have a new coach in Tabai Matson, who finds himself in both the enviable position of inheriting a title-winning squad, with Marcus Smith poised to further enhance his reputation, and the impossible one of having to follow last season’s glories. “On the back of the last year, Quins were really clear on their DNA,” Matson said. “They want to stay true to that. I want to lead in the manner that they think is their DNA and their style.”
It was encouraging too, to hear Pat Lam insist that Bristol would be sticking to their guns, having finished top of the regular season table and taken a 28-0 lead in the semi-final against Harlequins, only to implode. “I honestly believe we’ve got a game that can beat any team,” he said. “What I’m dependent on is the players to play that game. The way that I want to play the game can achieve both [entertaining and winning].”
They will be tested by Saracens, who look depleted with Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, Mako Vunipola and Elliot Daly resting following their Lions exertions, but are never better than when playing with a point to prove. You sense that is where they are on their Premiership return.
Their playing model – and indeed that of Exeter – can be criticised but both have delivered success in the past and neither club is likely to change much this season. After positive starts under new management, Sale and Leicester can be put in that bracket, too.
Then there is the tranche of clubs looking to gatecrash the top four. Bath, with Danny Cipriani at the helm, Gloucester, Northampton, Wasps, London Irish, Newcastle and Worcester – all of whom need no longer look over their shoulders, to set themselves up not to lose and to grind out results. Harlequins have shown the rewards are there and the risks have been largely eliminated. And with an uncertain winter looming, there is no time like the present.