It may have gone unnoticed to many, but club rugby is back in full swing. Since the weekend after England’s final game in Manchester there have been four rounds of England’s top division and two rounds of matches in the European Cup, and both seem to be as competitive as ever.
Local favourites Sale Sharks have had a mixed start to the season, with an unblemished home record but without a single win on the road to date. Making their adoptive home of Salfords’s AJ Bell stadium a fortress after being there for only three years is a tough ask, but they haven’t lost there since April, and will hope to extend this winning run further into the season. A win against perennial favourites Northampton is also a sign that the team is in good health, after narrowly missing out on a play-off place for a spot in the European Cup last season. The squad have over 300 international caps between them (98 of which are provided by Ireland legend Peter Stringer), and have shown their potential to be amongst the contenders. It’s also an opportunity for star fly-half Danny Cipriani to make his case for an England place after being omitted from the World Cup squad.
2015 Champions Saracens have been the early pacesetters, and are top of their Champions Cup group. The bookies favourites are so far unbeaten in the league and have recorded very comfortable wins over solid Toulouse and Ulster sides. Wasps also managed to claim the scalp of triple European Champions Toulon in a remarkable 32-6 win at the Ricoh Arena. The scale of the Coventry-based team’s victory over a side that, until now, have seemed invincible, will provide a great deal of confidence to other English sides, especially since they finished eighth in the Premiership last season.
Eddie Jones’s appointment as Head Coach has also hopefully signalled the end of the fallout of England’s embarrassing world cup campaign. After a month of acrimony over Lancaster’s coaching, Sam Burgess and the reasons for England’s failure, English rugby can now move on, and the premiership will be where that recovery will be based.
Jones has confirmed that he will continue the RFU’s policy of only selecting players based in England outside of “exceptional circumstances.” Some have argued that the last three European Players of the Year being English counts as “exceptional circumstances,” and there was some pressure to change the policy after the world cup. Steffon Armitage—2014 winner and Toulon No.8—voiced his anger over the fact that he and 2015 winner Nick Abendanon were overlooked for the World Cup because of their expatriate status.
However, home-based English players, commentators and administrators have responded by saying that the monetary fallout, as well as the effect on the harmony of the team, would be too severe. French Rugby recently signed a three-year contract worth €300 million, giving French clubs a massive advantage cash-wise. With English clubs subject to a lower salary cap than their French counterparts, the worry is that the only thing keeping top players in the Premiership is the prospect of national team selection. While this debate will roll on for years to come, Jones’s decision to carry on current policy during his tenure does bring some stability to the new regime.
The premiership will also continue its tradition of seeing some of the most internationally recognised players taking to the field. Since the mid-1990’s, greats of the game such as Francois Pienaar, Martin Castrogiovanni, Phillippe Sella and Michael Lynaugh have played in the Premiership. This year, fans will see Jean De Villiers at Leicester, George North and Victor Matfield at Northampton and James Hook and Greg Laidlaw at Gloucester, among many others.
So while the disappointment of the world cup will be felt for a long time, English rugby fans will take much consolation from the fact that club rugby has returned. The Aviva Premiership is arguably the most competitive league in Europe and will be well and truly up for grabs right up until the final at Twickenham on May 28th.