Premiership unpredictability is double edged sword

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

5 thoughts on “Premiership unpredictability is double edged sword

  1. I’ll tell you why there’s no consistency – spot the difference:

    Southern Hemisphere – play in the Super XIV, play in the Tri Nations, go on tour up North.

    English Rugby – Premiership season kicks off, play a few games, EDF cup begins (play a weakened side because it’s meaningless), few more Prem games, more EDF games (weakened side again) then some Heineken Cup games (Weak side if it’s only Treviso, best team if it’s Munster or Toulouse), then the Premiership’s back….unless you play for England (This season there was a gap of over a month in the GP season and it then recommenced in the middle of the Autumn series – madness!) Players will then either play for England, or for their clubs in a weakened team against another weakened team. A few weeks later they’re back at their clubs…..unless the RFU blocks them that is (whilst not blocking others that have played more games). Then finally the top teams can pick a settled side for about 4 weeks……and along comes the 6 Nations with 5 rounds of matches plus rest periods in between. Those players that aren’t injured and/or haven’t played too many games are free to return to their clubs for all of about 6 weeks of the season. The really lucky ones will be rewarded with an ill-conceived tour of the Southern Hemisphere to totally crush any semblance of morale.

    My point is, the structure’s not right!

  2. I have to agree with Rob Watson here. I simply cannot understand how one can have 3 competitions runinng at the same time (GP/HC/EDF) and then in among those three competitions still have to play the 6 Nations!
    How can any team build up any sort of momentum in any of the competitions and it is my understanding that the EDF is regarded as somewhat of a less important competition. In South Africa during our S14 a competition (much like your EDF) runs at the same time as the S14 and players need to make their mark here first to get selected into the S14 teams. During the entire 16 weeks it takes to complete the S14 each team only has 1 bye and that is it. There are no 6 week/4week etc. breaks where top flight players are then forced or required to play in other competitions.

    As Rob correctly stated, the struture is not right.

  3. Have to agree. If they’re going to play the EDF Energy trophy, they should do it during the internationals (of which there should only be 3 in the autumn incidentally). I imagine that the problem is that the RFU would then not be able to fulfil the terms of their sponsorship deal. Once again commercialism ruling over wellbeing of the players and rugby as a whole.

    I also don’t understand why H Cup group matches are played in blocks of 2. Perhaps blocks of 3, fine, but 3 blocks of two makes everything so disjointed. It is an absolute mess.

  4. Me feelin that for real boys.

    Players get better when they play at a higher standard. And the number of games they play a year should be limited well below the current 32 (I think it is). We should learn from the NFL – the most commercially ruthless sport in the world, but in recognition of the strain the game puts on their players, they never play more than 24 times a year and most are in the 16-20 range (and of course they only trot on for a few minutes at a time before having to sit down for a rest).

    And as you limit the number of games, you need to make sure the elite players are playing the top-level games only – starting with internationals, then the key Heineken and GP games, and they should never be playing EDF or other crap like that. The elite players should be playing 10 games a year for England, and then just club games against the best Heineken and GP opposition. The elite squad should never be playing the likes of Bristol, Newcastle, Treviso, or Wasps (sorry, couldn’t help myself).

    If you want to make it easier still, scrap the cups and the GP, and put the best 6N zone clubs (let’s say, for argument’s sake, the best 14) in a league and have them play 13-18 games a year.

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