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CHRIS FOY: Rusty restart must give way to thrills in rugby’s quest to re-engage it’s fans

After such a long wait and so much anticipation, it was perhaps no surprise that the Premiership return felt like an anti-climax. On the whole it was a stuttering, rusty restart.

There are teething problems but they cannot be allowed to drag on. Referees are actually enforcing the breakdown laws and the upshot was chaos, a sky-high penalty count, zero tolerance and a raft of sin-bins.

This is the officials doing what is required and the powers-that-be must hold their nerve with the crackdown, even if it scars the early rounds of this second phase of the season. Players have had months to prepare and must adapt to the ruck clean-up, which is in the best interests of safety.

Serial offenders won’t just be harming their team’s hopes of victory, they will be damaging rugby’s quest to re-engage its audience.

Those who would normally argue style is irrelevant, as long as there is substance, must amend that outlook. There must be entertainment, to capture attention again.

While cricket is grappling with avoidable bad-light issues, rugby’s problem is that observers are too often left in the dark by the nuances of the laws and their application. 

Viewers may have been confused, but players cannot fail to understand that referees will not cut them the same slack they did. Rucks have to be cleaner. The breakdown had become lawless, messy and a major turn-off.

So the de-cluttering process is vital. The Premiership is not and never will be a northern version of New Zealand rugby, so it was no shock to see matches unfold that bore no resemblance to recent Super Rugby Aotearoa contests.

But it can be and must be better to watch. Referees were following orders by penalising breakdown infringements but there were still too many re-set scrums and a lack of urgency.

There were also sightings of dreaded ruck ‘caterpillars’, which allow scrum-halves space to box-kick. They must be eradicated.

People want to see heads-up, instinctive attacking play. The over-riding message must be to get on with the game, clean up the mess and sell the sport again.

Early indications are that Steve Diamond was right to say the play-off picture is going to keep changing. 

Unfortunately for Sale’s director of rugby, it was his own side’s false restart on Friday which emphasised how the league hierarchy is in a state of flux — and that having a strong line-up on paper counts for nothing.   

Harlequins were very impressive in the way they physically withstood and eclipsed the massive Sharks. Comfortable wins for Bath and Gloucester served to further narrow the gaps between teams in the Premiership’s squeezed middle. Below Exeter and Bristol, the top-four tussle could go down to the wire.

If money wasn’t the over-riding factor, the game’s administrators would be best off abandoning their plans for a hectic autumn international schedule.

So many Tests are planned but there must be doubts about the majority of them going ahead.

New Zealand are supposed to be hosting a full Rugby Championship programme in October and November, but they are now dealing with a new Covid-19 outbreak.

France has been added to the UK Government’s travel quarantine list, which doesn’t bode well for European club fixtures later this year. Even the wish to conclude the Six Nations must be under threat. 

A desire by rugby officials to protect the safety of participants and the public alike is at odds with the need to prevent a financial collapse. There is no easy way out. Best of luck to all those charged with finding solutions.

BT Sport’s attempt to create atmosphere at empty grounds was quite successful. 

There were very few times when sound effects jarred with the unfolding action. Occasionally, the cheers began prematurely and ended abruptly but, for long periods, it was possible to believe fans were present — if viewers ignored the empty seats.

There were a handful of commentary apologies for on-field swearing but that was more obvious to people who attended, rather than watching at home.

Another inevitability was that the most-hyped signings would endure quiet introductions to their new clubs.

That was the case for two unlucky 13s, Manu Tuilagi and Semi Radradra, with Sale and Bristol respectively. Neither man had much opportunity to justify all the fanfare relating to their moves. 

It was a day for the hookers to shine, with Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tom Dunn and Jack Singleton all scoring and impressing, while Harry Thacker produced an eye-catching, side-stepping cameo off Bristol’s bench.

Some new signings did make an impact, such as Ben Spencer with a long-range interception try on debut for Bath, while Kyle Sinckler marked his first outing for Bristol by helping to win a scrum penalty and then showcasing his slick handling to send Thacker into space. 

Best tackle

Bath lock and captain Charlie Ewels is a large man but when he drove into Motu Matu’u, the London Irish hooker dispatched him on to his back with a monstrous hit.

Tannoy statement

After recent criticism of Exeter’s club branding, the Devon club responded by blaring out their ‘Tomahawk Chop’ anthem repeatedly, before and during their win over Leicester. 

Top try

Stuart Hogg rounded off a sweeping try by Exeter against Leicester, after a pull-back pass by Ollie Devoto and a delayed release by Joe Simmonds to set free Olly Woodburn.

Unnecessary warning

Worcester had screens at Sixways urging people to ‘Respect the Kicker’, even when there were no fans present for their encounter with Gloucester.  

Worst celebration 

Poor Luke Cowan-Dickie and the players stuck beneath him were taken aback when the Exeter hooker touched down, stood up and promptly threw up.

Unnecessary kit change

Why weren’t Gloucester in traditional Cherry and White? No clash meant there was no clear reason to wear their change strip.  

Flying finish

England centre Jonathan Joseph struck for Bath with an airborne stretch to score in the left corner; in the manner of so many acrobatic rugby league wings. 

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