England’s Premiership closed explosively as Harlequins dethroned reigning champions Exeter Chiefs in a final win. The game swung one way and then the other for 80 minutes before Louis Lynagh’s second try with four minutes to go wrapped up the win.
It was a remarkable victory for the London side who appeared in disarray when Head of Rugby Paul Gustard left in January. However, his departure loosened the shackles and under a trio of coaches. Nick Evans, Adam Jones, and Jerry Flannery played an open, free-flowing style of rugby that few could live for 80 minutes.
Both Harlequins’ and Exeter’s performances were remarkable. Thye provided a stark contrast to some of the stodgy, slow, prescripted rugby that dominated over the autumn and winter. Now the attention turns to the Lions tour to South Africa, as well as England’s home tests against Canada and the USA. Fans will no doubt want the buzz to continue.
The Premiership will return in September. As such LWOS-Rugby looks at four ways of maintaining the feel-good factor rather than watch it disappear alongside the summer sun.
Be more like Quins
Harlequins’ style to win the Premiership was electrifying. It got people off their feet, cheering wildly, and randomly. In short, it was everything professional sport should be. Something to take the mind of the day-to-day realities and boy have we had a few of those these past 18 months.
While at first their desire to let rip was in response to the controlled style that Gustard imposed after their 14-men defeated Wasps 48-46 the playoffs became a target and reinforced their attempts to play a fast, attacking style.
Furthermore, come the playoffs, when there were season-ending results on the line, they didn’t let their style drop. Come the final they kicked their first penalty to touch and were duly rewarded with a penalty try. They turned down every possible kick to either scrum or kick to touch. No more so than when, with half-time imminent and a penalty in a good position that would have given them the lead, Joe Marler called for the scrum and two phases later Alex Dombrandt raced over for a try that helped open a seven-point lead taking them in the end to a Harlequins Premiership win.
How will Harlequins react to a Premiership win
Now comes the tricky bit for Quins. Maintaining and developing their style to counter the schemes their rivals will have cooked up over the summer to counter its effectiveness.
Teams wanting to play a more open style will worry about being relegated as for a second season. Two seasons ago Saracens guaranteed relegation for financial irregularities meant teams had a free pass to loosen the shackles. However, for most of the time fans were served up some pretty uninspiring rugby.
This season teams responded more expansively, led initially by Bristol Bears and then Quins. Then matched by others at times. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then we have to hope coaches will be poring over Harlequins highlights. Will they try and find a way of working out how they can get their teams playing with such elan?
Keep it noisy
Another feature of Quins run to the title was the return of fans to grounds. They have been badly missed and while much has been made of the final’s capacity being suddenly chopped from 20,000 to 10,000. However, those that were there made a hell of a noise.
It was a similar story a week earlier when Quins fought back to eliminate Bristol at Ashton Gate. The spontaneous, infectious noise provided a fitting backdrop to events on the field and made watching it so much better.
Better yet it was a deep-throated, from the depths of the soul type noise. Not the artificial atmosphere imposed on proceedings with piped-in music over the tannoy system. It was a fine contrast for a set of fans who have been unfairly tagged as a bunch of big-money, city boys droning ‘Quins’ with soporific monotony.
The quirks of the loosening of England’s Covid restrictions on Monday 17th May was swooped upon by three Premiership clubs who moved their matches from the weekend to the start of the week.
Newcastle Falcons hosted Northampton Saints, and Bristol Bears welcomed local rivals Gloucester on Monday. While London Irish taking on Exeter Chiefs a day later, in front of supporters. All three were rocking occasions, with the stands abuzz as fans returned to doing what they love the most.
There had been midweek matches the previous season as the Premiership squeezed in fixtures. While the week missed its usual rhythms, players and fans enjoyed the experience.
The time to play midweek would be during the Six Nations and November internationals. Let the national team be the ones in action on weekends as little attention is given to league matches anyway, especially as the leading players don’t figure. It would also mean the Premiership’s narrative is given greater attention, while it is another chance to put rugby front and centre.
Matches should be relatively local, with a maximum two-hour journey for the away team, and at school holidays so young fans don’t miss out. With the more flexible nature of the working day, more away fans would have the chance to travel than pre-pandemic and it would give the broadcasters the chance to tap into the midweek market.
If rugby’s authority figures aren’t convinced look at when T20 Cricket was introduced. Plenty chuntered about the format, the timing, the type of crowd it might attract, but when it began there were queues down the road at Lords for the Middlesex versus Surrey match. The fans had voted and cricket had a new cash cow.
Widen your perspective
English teams’ performances in Europe have been poor, which might be a strange thing to say considering that three of the last five winners of the European Champions Cup have been English.
However, Saracens victories in 2017 and 2019, and Exeter Chiefs in 2020 paper over the fact that in those five years that the Premiership has produced two quarterfinalists on three occasions.
In 2016-17 Saracens and Wasps made it through the groups. Saracens went on to lift the trophy, while Wasps failed to reach the semifinals. Saracens flew the flag in 2017-18, and 2018-19 when they won their third European crown. A year on they reached the semifinals, while Exeter took their title. This season gone was the worst yet as Exeter and Sale Sharks fell in the quarterfinals.
Quite why, is a question that coaches will be trying to answer over the next few months. Is it the French team’s spending power? Different refereeing interpretations? Irish teams streamlining of their resources?
Whatever it is, Harlequins now have the chance to put their mark on the competition in their indomitable style and try and improve on their quarterfinal finish the last time they went in as English champions.
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