Premiership returns with plan to harness Six Nations’ feelgood factor | Premiership

The men’s Six Nations may be over but another decisive period looms for the club game, on and off the field. After the self-imposed famine – never before has the top English professional league voluntarily gone into mid-season hibernation for eight weeks – the next aim is to deliver a springtime feast of Premiership rugby as appetising as the national team’s last two outings against Ireland and France.

With a run-in of six regular season rounds still to play and just a handful of points separating the seven clubs between second and eighth vying for a place in the top four, some tasty basic ingredients are already in place. But there is also a whole other dimension involved, neatly articulated this week by Harlequins’ progressive chief executive, Laurie Dalrymple. “We’re coming out of a really positive Six Nations,” said Dalyrymple, ahead of Quins’ big London “derby” against Saracens at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. “From an English perspective if we don’t harness that feelgood factor and take it into the club game then we’ve dropped the ball.”

How many such fumbles have there been in the past 20-odd years, from financial meltdowns and Covid disruption to salary cap sagas and club v country score-settling? How many other businesses, already faced with a shortfall in match day income as a consequence of a slimmed-down 10-club league, would respond by shutting up shop – the odd friendly apart – at the precise time of year its product is at its most nationally visible? “Rugby union is brilliant at killing itself,” was the pithy verdict delivered this week by Newcastle’s director of rugby, Steve Diamond.

Now would be a good time, then, for the sport to look up from its navel and commit to showing the very best of itself over the next 11 weeks. And if the weather vaguely plays ball by firming the pitches up and encouraging teams to give it a major rip, some genuine treats should lie in store. Around 60,000 fans are expected to attend the Sarries-Quins showdown, underlining once again that if club rugby is presented as fun and accessible then an audience will come to see it. Owen Farrell v Marcus Smith is only one of many delicious subplots.

So let’s set to one side, for now, the continuing negotiations over the crucial new Professional Game Partnership deal – the latest deadline for finalising the Championship structure and the outlook for promotion and relegation etc is mid-April – and some clubs’ still wince-inducing balance sheets. Instead, it is time to dig deep into the recesses of the memory to recall who was looking half decent when the music abruptly stopped in late January, not least Northampton, who were seven points ahead of the field after 12 rounds.

Owen Farrell will line up opposite Marcus Smith in Tottenham on Saturday. Photograph: Matt Impey/Shutterstock

Three more wins from their last half-dozen fixtures, with a light dusting of bonus points, should be sufficient to keep the chasing pack at bay particularly once their international contingent are all back. The other three semi-final spots, though, will be decided by fleeting micro-moments and the freshness of certain key players. Will Bath, for example, welcome back a knackered Finn Russell or a revitalised matchwinner? Their next four opponents are Sale, Quins, Exeter and Saracens: they may well have to beat two of them – they have Sale and Sarries at home – to make the cut.

Sarries, with some imminent big name departures to distract them, must travel away to Northampton, Bath and Bristol. In theory they should be top four certs but securing a home semi will require a serious upturn. Exeter? The Chiefs’ rebuild is progressing nicely but it is entirely possible they will have to beat Leicester away on the final day to make the play-offs. Before that they must deal with a freshly motivated Newcastle at Sandy Park, with Diamond adamant the bottom-placed Falcons will collect at least one victory in their remaining games. Not only are new contracts on the line but, if they win this weekend, Diamond has promised to dip into his own pocket for the squad to stay overnight and celebrate in Devon.

Sale? Last year the Sharks made the final but even four wins from their final six games might not be enough to gatecrash the top six. Perhaps the key determining factor in the whole equation, though, are the mighty Quins. They have been working hard out in the Algarve and retain a handy mix of youth and experience. Players such as Oscar Beard have been exposed to the England environment and have returned with soaring confidence; Louis Lynagh is now a capped Test player with Italy and has yet to taste defeat in a blue jersey.

skip past newsletter promotion

Smith, Danny Care, André Esterhuizen, Tyrone Green, Nick David, Cadan Murley … outscoring Quins is not going to be easy. Unless, of course, somebody like Saracens can shut them down at source as they did so splendidly in their 38-10 demolition job at the Stoop in November. Whether it is the outstanding Puma Juan Martín González, Scotland’s Andy Christie, Samoa’s Theo McFarland or the France-bound Billy Vunipola, Sarries have the back-row beef to stop anybody in their tracks.

Quick Guide

Remaining fixtures


Fri 22 Mar
Bristol Bears v Northampton 7.45pm
Leicester Tigers v Gloucester 7.45pm

Sat 23 Mar
Exeter v Newcastle Falcons 3pm
Saracens v Harlequins 3.05pm

Sun 24 Mar
Bath v Sale Sharks 3pm 

Fri 29 Mar
Newcastle Falcons v Leicester Tigers 7.45pm
Northampton v Saracens 7.45pm

Sat 30 Mar
Gloucester v Bristol Bears 3pmHarlequins v Bath 3.05pmSun 31 MarSale v Exeter, 3pm

Sat 20 AprSaracens v Gloucester 3pmNorthampton v Leicester 3.05pmExeter v Bath, 5.30pm

Sun 21 Apr
Bristol Bears v Newcastle Falcons 3pm
Sale v Harlequins 3pm 

Fri 26 Apr
Bath v Saracens 7.45pm

Sat 27 Apr
Leicester v Bristol Bears 3pm
Harlequins v Northampton 3.05pm

Sun 28 Apr
Gloucester v Exeter 3pm
Newcastle v Sale Sharks 3pm 

Fri 10 May
Newcastle v Bath 7.45pm
Sale Sharks v Leicester Tigers 7.45pm

Sat 11 May
Bristol v Saracens 3.05pm
Northampton v Gloucester 3.05pm
Exeter v Harlequins 5.30pm 

Sat 18 May
Bath v Northampton 3.05pm
Gloucester v Newcastle Falcons 3.05pm
Harlequins v Bristol Bears, 3.05pm
Leicester Tigers v Exeter 3.05pm
Saracens v Sale Sharks 3.05pm

Thank you for your feedback.

So stand by for some Tottenham fireworks, with the winning side my tip to join Northampton as home semi-finalists. And, in doing so, assist with Dalrymple’s wish for the club game to win over more neutrals and to ‘raise all boats’ commercially. “There is so much about this sport at club level that’s really positive. It’s about focusing in on some of the things we do exceptionally well and getting a growing audience behind that. If we don’t really deliver on our growing level of popularity and increased interest we’ll have wasted an opportunity.” No pressure, lads.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Back To Top