It has been a long wait but rugby is finally back.
There were times when I doubted this restart would ever happen… I’d even given away all my kit to the NHS! But now we are days away from the opening match — Harlequins versus Sale at the Stoop on Friday night — and I can’t wait to get going.
On a personal note, I haven’t played for nine months because of a knee injury and I’m desperate to prove that the old dog has still got some life in him. Things will look very different from the last game we played before Covid-19 struck and here’s what to expect…
There will be water breaks every 20 minutes — with each player having his own numbered bottle. One of the big reasons behind it is to control hygiene.
If you’re rushing on water at a random break in play, there’s a good chance you’ll end up sharing bottles by mistake and increase the spread of germs. There will be one water carrier for the forwards and another for the backs.
Whoever is in charge of refilling will have to wear PPE and masks. It might double up as a mini team talk!
The big difference on the pitch is a re-focus on the breakdown laws.
Referees are trying to speed up play so you’ve got to place the ball straight away if you get tackled.
You can’t take a second roll to buy some time — and support players are not allowed to come flying into the ruck from all sorts of obscure angles. We’ve had referees in training to run us through it and, in the early stages, I think we’ll see plenty of breakdown penalties and turnovers.
It took time to get used to in New Zealand’s Aotearoa competition but I think it will be worth it.
We could see more offloading to avoid breakdowns which, combined with the removed threat of relegation, could result in expansive game plans.
It will be strange playing in eerie silence. I’m friends with Cyrus Christie at Fulham and I’ve had a few chats with him about what to expect.
Sportspeople are used to getting a lift from the home crowd but obviously that won’t happen for the time being. You just have to dig deeper to motivate yourself.
Generally speaking, the absence of crowds will benefit the away team. There will be less chance of the referee being swayed by the home crowd and you won’t have their support behind you.
Semi Radradra at Bristol is the new guy who could really light up the league. He’s box office.
I know how good Kyle Sinckler and Manu Tuilagi are but, having played against Radradra with the Barbarians, he could be the biggest summer signing.
He’s right up there with the best attackers in the world. The hot, end-of-summer conditions — which might double up as a trial for a global season — could really suit his style.
The new breakdown rules should suit Wasps flanker Jack Willis down to the ground. He was pushing for an England call-up before so this could be his time to shine.
The poacher types such as Will Evans, Matt Kvesic and Tom Curry could really see their stock rise over the next few weeks.
It’s almost like a new season with new players and new coaches. They will bring different ideas and strategies, so a lot of old footage will be redundant.
Steve Borthwick at Leicester is an incredible coach and Jerry Flannery has been putting in a lot of tough Munster-like work with our forwards. The Gloucester coaching set-up is all young English guys and it will be great for the domestic game if they have success.
For a long time, English coaches have been looked down on. There was a trend of Kiwis and Aussies but the success of Rob Baxter and Co is changing that.
Some teams have deeper squads than others. We could end up with a bit of a split between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.
Midweek games will be a big test of depth. Some squads might have 30 players while others might have 40. The teams who manage their players’ training and recovery will do well.
A lot of players will have to double up and that could lead to a drubbing. For the sake of player welfare, hopefully we don’t see academy lads getting thrown in to scrum against a Joe Marler or Sinckler.
Away days will be a little bit different. All the players will be in single rooms, with the exception of players who already live together.
There are strict rules around hotel buffets so we’re no longer allowed to help ourselves… which a few of the big guys might not be too happy about!
Travel on coaches has to be socially distanced so you have two seats to yourself facing forward. If there’s four seats round a table, you can sit diagonally opposite another player.
There will be one bus for the players and another mode of transport for other staff.
We haven’t come to an official decision yet but I think we will be taking a knee. There was a players’ association call with a black representative from each club.
It was Aaron Morris from Quins. He will present to the squad — to educate us as well as set out a plan — and we’ll get behind it.
For social distancing reasons, the changing rooms at the Stoop will be out of action. Temporary facilities have been set up in the two bars in the stands.
The home team will change in the Honours Bar and the away team will be in the Mike Brown Bar… they better look after it!
Showers have been installed out the back in the car park and players are only allowed to use them in small groups.
Under normal circumstances you could catch up with the opposition in the bar after the game but that’s no longer allowed so it will just be team pizzas in the changing room.