By Mitch Phillips
LONDON, Aug 12 – After five months of inactivity the English Premiership cranks back into action this weekend, sparking an almost unbroken year of domestic and international rugby across Europe that will fully test the sport’s commitment to player welfare.
Starting with Harlequins v Sale on Friday, the remaining nine rounds of Premiership matches will be crammed into six weeks followed by the playoffs and final on Oct. 24 – less than a month before the next season kicks off at the end of November. In between, there are the knockout rounds of the European Cup to be played, the rescheduled games of the Six Nations, and a whole new mini-international tournament in November to replace the traditional games against the southern hemisphere teams.
The 2020-21 season will finish on June 26, five days before the British & Irish Lions are due to play their first tour game in South Africa.
For what is probably the most physically demanding of all sports, it appears a very busy programme, but those running it insist they will be constantly measuring a spread of metrics to ensure players get adequate rest and recovery.
Many coaches have spoken of how great it is to have a full squad of fit and rejuvenated players, in contrast to the usual battered bodies they have to repair on a weekly basis. What will also be different upon the restart is that many teams will have players, and in some cases coaches, who were plying their trade elsewhere when the season was postponed.
Most prominent are the brilliant Fijian centre Semi Radradra and England prop Kyle Sinckler, the latest additions to a Bristol side sitting third with serious title ambitions.
They host Saracens on Saturday, with the holders doomed to relegation due to their points reduction for breaking salary cap rules and trying to juggle their squad ahead of a year in the Championship but with European Cup aspirations very much alive.
Second-placed Sale have signed Manu Tuilagi from a Leicester side who are now coached by ex-England captain Steve Borthwick as they prepare to visit league leaders Exeter on Saturday.
The battle to make the top four and the playoffs looks wide open, with pre-lockdown form unlikely to continue.
The top eight of the 12-team league also qualify for Europe next year so any thoughts of teams throwing off the shackles now that the fear of relegation has disappeared appear misplaced.
“I think Exeter will be hard to beat but I do think there are a number of teams who can force their way into the top four, Chris Boyd, Director of Rugby at fourth-placed Northampton told The Times podcast “The Ruck” this week.
“It’s hugely competitive, there’s a cat’s whisker between success and failure, and how you get out of the blocks really counts.”
Exeter, champions in 2017 and three times runners-up to Saracens in the last four years are unlikely to change their “endless recycle” approach.
However, even Rob Baxter’s ruthlessly efficient side will have to be on their toes to deal with new refereeing interpretations coming into force.
Now well established after two months of implementation in New Zealand, the breakdown has been cleaned up and speeded up, though coaches are already finding ways to “beat the system”.
But those nuances are likely to remain second fiddle to the unprecedented demands on player fitness.
“We are all going to have players who are knackered,” Sale Director of Rugby Steve Diamond told “The Ruck”. “The sides who look after their players best are the sides that will have the most success.” (Reporting by Mitch Phillips; Editing by Ken Ferris)