Exeter and Saracens are dominant while Europe also occupies minds, leaving drama scarce at rugby’s business end
The final month of the season should be the most gripping of all. For players and coaches it is the moment when 10 months of hard work are either rewarded or not. For anyone trying to market rugby to the uninitiated these should be the most precious of days when the game speaks for itself. Sunny weather, shirt sleeves, packed stadiums, firm grounds … for a winter sport in the northern hemisphere there is no better moment to entice the elusive floating voter.
All too often, though, things are not entirely what they seem. Take Exeter and Saracens, so far in front heading up the final straight that the galloping hooves of the rest of the Premiership pack are barely audible. With two regular-season games left the table-topping Chiefs are no fewer than 30 points ahead of Northampton in fourth place. Their director of rugby, Rob Baxter, spoke with typical honesty at the weekend about an “emotion vacuum” as his battle-weary players prepare for a brace of games that, to some degree, count for little.
Either way they have no option but to soldier on. It is a similar story for Saracens who, having also already sealed a home semi, plan to rest some key men for this weekend’s home game against, guess who, Exeter. What should be one of the season’s biggest fixtures suddenly has a ho-hum feel, with Saracens primarily focused on the following week’s European final against Leinster. For a league purporting to be the most competitive in the world, this is less than ideal.
So here is a question: what can be done to heighten the end-of-season buzz for all? The argument for tweaking the play-off format, for instance, has not been as strong for a while. A high-profile grand final clearly remains desirable but the semi-finals? If Saints, or anyone else, win at Sandy Park it will be the harshest of letdowns for a team needing only half a dozen more points to equal the league’s record tally. The anticlimax would rank alongside anything since Gloucester won the regular 2002-03 season by 18 points only to be smashed by Wasps in the final.
Even that, of course, would still not definitely guarantee suspense: Saracens and Exeter were virtually nailed on to make this year’s Twickenham finale months ago. Nor would it necessarily work to give the top two sides a semi-final advantage proportional to how far ahead of their opponents they finished in the regular season. Exeter kicking off with a 30-0 lead over Northampton or Harlequins, for example, really would be a waste of time.
How else, then, to ensure more meaningful games and fewer weary plods like Sale v Bath last Friday? European qualification is clearly useful in this regard, as is relegation, but perhaps the game is moving towards a time where, as happens in football’s Premier League, there are financial rewards based either on league position or total match points scored. If there was a significant financial differential between, say, finishing first and second it would concentrate everyone’s minds and help reinforce the importance of every fixture.
This will clearly be a less popular move with those finishing in the bottom half each season but the fresh investment entering the sport via CVC Capital Partners arguably makes it a more viable possibility nowadays. At present the only cash incentive on offer comes in the form of a bonus paid to the players of the grand final champions. Otherwise it is mostly about Champions Cup qualification, which, as Newcastle have found this season, can be a double-edged sword.
This is all about to become more pertinent than ever given the changes to be made to the northern hemisphere season. Next year’s Premiership final will be on 20 June, with the league not commencing until the weekend of 20 October because of the Rugby World Cup. The rhythm of the campaign will be appreciably different, the importance of squad depth even greater. The European final will be on 23 May, an unprecedented four weeks before its domestic counterpart.
In theory it might help to separate the last great European hurrah from the Premiership’s business end. There is no question Saracens suffered two years ago, winning the Champions Cup only to lose to Exeter in their Premiership semi-final the following week. But maybe the most blindingly obvious solution of all is being overlooked. Imagine you are Owen Farrell or Maro Itoje and have just won the 2020 European final in Marseille. On Monday morning you wake up and realise there are another four weekends of the season still to play. There is no way you can physically or mentally peak for all of them – which brings us right back to the starting point and Baxter’s emotion vacuum. With a shorter, sharper season many of rugby union’s year-end dilemmas would disappear overnight.
One to watch
Win at Harlequins on Friday night and Leicester’s grim flirtation with relegation from the Gallagher Premiership will finally be over. Lose without a bonus point, however, and there could yet be a seriously tense final weekend if Newcastle can win away at Kingsholm on Saturday. That scenario would leave the Falcons needing to beat Bristol at home with a bonus point whilst the Tigers draw another blank at home to their old rivals Bath. Should Leicester, currently nine points ahead of Newcastle entering the last two rounds, fail to survive they will have only themselves to blame.