For about the 5th year in a row, this season’s Premiership is being billed as the most competitive so far and at the halfway stage results would appear to support this. Everybody truly can beat everybody else and are proving it week in week out. It would take a brave man to bet on the occupants of the top 4 places come May, let alone the eventual winner.
This makes it a thrilling competition because there are very few one-sided games, very few match-ups for which you can predict the outcome with any degree of certainty. But there is a flip-side to this. While excellent for the supporters (and Murdoch’s bulging coffers at Sky), is it that great for England? This may seem a strange question to ask but there are two reasons for my asking it.
Firstly, in most competitions, standards are raised when one team emerges from the pack as the outstanding team and everyone else is compelled to meet the challenge. At the start of this century, Leicester were the dominant force until Wasps met the challenge and raised the bar even higher. Others have since caught up and Sale stepped in to end the dominance of the two giants. However Leicester and Wasps responded again and have taken the last two titles.
The dominance of one competitor can seem boring but it certainly increases standards. Men’s golf and tennis are stronger than ever now and that is due to the long-term dominance of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Rafael Nadal has reached heights of brilliance he would have been unlikely to without his rival spurring him on. English football teams have been far more competitive in Europe every year now that there are 4 teams battling for the domestic title rather than one or two. England’s cricket team was driven to untouched heights in 2005 by the challenge of facing the all-conquering Aussies. In the southern hemisphere, South Africa’s World Cup success was built around Bulls and Sharks teams who had responded to the dominance of the Crusaders in the Super 14.
I am glad we do not have one team utterly dominating but where is the team laying down the challenge to everyone else, raising standards and forcing others to achieve hitherto untouched levels? At the moment nobody has been brave enough, nobody has been consistent enough, nobody has been ruthless enough. I worry that, exciting though it all is, the quality may be in danger of stagnating.
Secondly, and connected to the first point, I worry about the level of inconsistency of the top teams. Nobody seems able to get on a roll such as Wasps achieved in the second half of last season. Harlequins followed their triumphant double victory against Stade Francais with a meek surrender at Northampton; London Irish thumped Gloucester but their good form came to a halt at the hands of a Saracens team who had just lost to lowly Wasps; Sale and Leicester are both groping for consistency and Bath, who have ground out more tight victories than most, threw away a hefty lead at Leicester.
The competition is therefore beautifully poised for a scintillating second half of the season. But it is a concern that nobody has the ruthlessness or courage to develop that winning habit. And this reflects in the national team. In the last 6 Nations, England managed to collapse against Wales, dog out a victory in Paris, fail to turn up at all in Scotland and then tear Ireland to shreds. This sort of schizophrenia defies logical explanation. But it cannot help that the team consists of players who seem unable to maintain the necessary standard of play week in week out.
It is no coincidence that the nucleus of Woodward’s England team was the dominant Wasps and Leicester sides. The team was full of people who knew how to win and precisely how to go about it. Defeat hurt badly and they never countenanced failure. The All Blacks are built around the outstanding Crusaders, Wales’s recent success has been built around the Ospreys (although the club still flatters to deceive), South Africa’s around the Bulls and the Sharks, and Australia’s side of the late 90s around the ACT Brumbies. They were all ruthless sides full of strong-minded winners.
Perhaps this is the flipside of the play-off system. Over 22 games, teams know they can afford to lose 6 or 7 and still make the play-offs. The Super 14 has a similar system but over only 13 games out of which they can lose maybe 3. And they have to travel thousands of miles which levels the playing field further. The Premiership teams know they can get away with taking their eye off the ball now and then. International rugby offers no such luxury. So while being full of excitement and offering the public matches which matter right up to the end of the season, is the Guinness Premiership breeding hard enough noses for the international stage?
For me, international rugby must always be the ultimate. Rugby nations are defined by their success on that plain and nothing else. No Welsh club has made a Heineken Cup final this century, but with 2 Grand Slams in 4 years, who cares? The Guinness Premiership brings in the money and the crowds and has benefited English rugby enormously. What it now needs is a team to grab it by the proverbials and drag their rivals out of their inconsistency and up to new levels to avoid getting left behind. Only then will it produce the men to help the international team to flourish.
By Stuart Peel