With the Premiership now in full swing, Stuart Peel is hoping that Northampton can continue to raise the standard of rugby.
I’m fairly neutral when it comes to the Aviva Premiership. The first result I look for is generally Wasps but I’m never too bothered if they have lost. I developed a soft spot for Northampton last season and London Irish the season before simply because they played the most exciting rugby, and I tend to support any English team in the Heineken Cup. There is no sense of tribalism when I am watching the Premiership.
This season however, I think I am going to take a particular interest in Northampton. To be honest, this could very easily change to Saracens in a month or so. Or possibly Bath. Leicester might be pushing it. But basically whoever is blazing a trail at the top of the table. Glory supporting? On the surface yes, but there is method to the madness. It is for the good of the Premiership as a whole.
Since the decline of the great Wasps team of the middle years of the last decade, there has been no outstanding team in the Premiership. By outstanding, I mean elevating the game beyond the reaches of any other team. This is no disrespect to Leicester’s double champions, but they have had their success playing largely like Leicester always have. They have done lots of things a little bit better than the rest, a little more consistently than the rest but on any given day they have been beatable. They have rarely blown sides away. They have rarely left their opponents wondering how on earth they are ever going to get to their level. In truth, they have usually been the best of a pretty uninspiring bunch.
The fact that any team can beat any other on any given day is often hailed as a great strength of the Premiership. But is it? Often a perceived lesser team beats an ostensibly superior team, not by elevating themselves to greater standards, but by dragging them down to their level. This is a skill in itself, making the opposition take you on at your own game. But the flip side of that is, why are none of the superior teams good enough to consistently avoid letting that happen? While we might lose the surprise factor, surely we would rather see trailblazing teams pulling everybody else up rather than average teams pulling others back down. We want to see teams who can win in all conditions in a variety of different ways.
For many years in the Super 14, Canterbury Crusaders were unstoppable at the business end of the tournament. Eventually others raised their standard to match them. Crusaders are still an outstanding team but others have caught them up and now the Bulls are setting the standard. In football’s Premiership, aided by deep pockets, teams such as Aston Villa, Manchester City and Everton have risen to challenge the established order. But while many celebrated the unpredictability of the league last year, they also lamented that the standard was poorer than for some years. Beyond that, having one or two teams setting the standards and dragging others up is generally beneficial to the national team.
At the end of last season there were signs that 3 or 4 teams may be breaking away from the pack, ready to set a new competitive standards among themselves and create something for everybody else to aim for. But just 3 rounds into the new Premiership season there is only 1 unbeaten team left. And that is why I regard Northampton as the country’s new most important side. They are playing exciting rugby, as Wasps did 5 years ago, but it is also winning rugby. If they can prove that they can win in all conditions in all ways, they could become the cornerstone of an English revival.
You can always rely on the likes of Leicester for abrasive forwards but against the cutting edge of the Aussies and Kiwis, they are shown to be one-dimensional. With a progressive gameplan, Northampton are producing some dynamic forwards and cutting young backs. If they can get back on the road they were travelling pre-Bloodgate, Harlequins could be in a similar mould. In terms of raising the game at domestic and national level, English rugby could benefit from one or two teams breaking away from the rest, challenging them to match their new standards. What we would lose in unpredictability, we would gain in quality. And for a while, that can only be a good thing.
By Stuart Peel