The Premiership returns on Friday, unplugged. After five months of inactivity comes a frenzy of seven rounds in 28 days, but there will be about 200 people at each match, all working, and their number will not include a citing officer or a television match officialwhile the two teams will remain socially distanced from each other until the whistle goes and the new world order ceases to apply.
It is a sanitised version of a game hungry for income, although not one penny will be raised during a game. Programmes will be supplied in digital form for free to supporters and season-ticket holders can watch games without paying a subscription to the broadcaster, BT Sport.
Testing times indeed for a game in peril, tensions eased slightly by Saturday’sapproval by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for grassroots clubs to restart. In England, teams of up to 10 can play non-contact rugby “in their own club environment” during August. “It’s a step in the direction of getting there,” the RFU chief executive, Bill Sweeney, told BBC Sport. “It gives us a bit of optimism in a difficult time.”
At the elite level, matches will be played in silence and players have been warned that referees will penalise bad language. Players who thrive on atmosphere will need to find different ways to motivate themselves and the great unknown for clubs – none are out of contention for a play-off place apart from relegated Saracens – is whether the lack of fans will neutralise home advantage and favour those sides whose turnstiles regularly need oiling.
“A lot of it comes down to what players have between their ears,” says Steve Diamond, Sale’s director of rugby. “When they play at the AJ Bell Stadium [the Sharks’ home ground] it is generally in front of an empty stadium! The lack of a crowd is not too distressing for me, but what it will do is make refereeing a bit better.
“When you go to Leicester, you throw a not-straight every lineout and the crowd tells the referee so. Without fans, referees should have a bit more about them and will be under less pressure. But given that microphones will be picking up everything, my lot are under strict instructions to keep their mouths shut.”
Sale are the curiosity of the restart. They are second to Exeter after a run of five victories in six matches, which included the scalping of the leaders at Sandy Park. They will resume with Manu Tuilagi in the centre after the England international left Leicester and a side that used to lack the means to get anywhere near the salary cap now has, according to Diamond, no excuses for missing out on the top four.
Tuilagi is not the only player who will play for two clubs in the same season. The England prop Kyle Sinckler has joined Bristol from Harlequins, the club where Ben Earl and Max Malins have arrived on loan from Saracens, next Saturday’s opponents at Ashton Gate. Semi Radradra has joined the Bears from France, Jonny May has returned to Gloucester and Nick Isiekwe is on loan at Northampton from Saracens.
There has been a change of emphasis in coaching. From next season, when Newcastle replace Saracens, eight of the 12 head coaches will be English, many of them in the first flush of their career. The financial squeeze inflicted by the pandemic has made experienced southern-hemisphere coaches budget-breakers and Wasps, Gloucester and Leicester resume the campaign with Lee Blackett, George Skivington and Steve Borthwick in charge respectively.
“There were not many opportunities for young coaches a few years ago,” says Blackett, who became Wasps’ head coach this year after the departure of David Young, the youngest in the Premiership at 37 until Skivington, a month his junior, took over at Gloucester last month. “Maybe this period has helped in terms of that, but there was always going to be a generation shift at some point.”
The game in the top-flight is becoming less structured with players having more of an input into gameplans. It has made the league less predictable and, even without Saracens’ disgrace, the battle for the top four places has become more open this season. Exeter are favourites to finish top and win the play-offs, but with the season resuming in a summer month and referees being encouraged to let games flow and allow more of a contest at the breakdown, will their possession-based approach need tweaking?
Sale and Bristol are second and third, armed with money to match their ambition.The Sharks’ lack of their own ground has not been a handicap in the past five months, but they are looking to build their own stadium; Diamond says plans are well advanced. Northampton and Wasps, who meet at Franklin’s Gardens next Sunday, follow, but even Leicester in 11th could squeeze into play-off contention if Borthwick’s arrival inspires a streak of victories.
It is, in one sense, a step into the unknown after a break that has been even longer than players in the amateur era enjoyed. No one has been able to play any warm-ups so they will all be arriving cold, new law interpretations will need adapting to and some will be more unsettled by the lack of an audience than others. It looks more of a reboot than a restart.