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2021 Rugby Season revisited(1) – Back to the future


Happy New Year! When the Pandemic hit the world in 2020 and impacted the sporting landscape as well as our whole way of life, I observed that it was a chance for rugby to reset and go back to the future, ie embrace some traditional values and I believe I was right. There has been recently so much to admire despite the frustrations on and off the field.

One undeniable fact is the emergence of an apparently irreversible trend in Premiership rugby which is such positive news for England if used with selectorial wisdom. Inspired no doubt by the Harlequins player-led revival and enhanced possibly by Covid-induced frustration plus a desire to entertain, the top English clubs are now providing spectacles week on week which are the envy of rugby everywhere. The depth of the player pool in England is without peer, and when enhanced by marquee players from all four corners of the world, it is an explosive mix.

The festive crackers of Quins v Northampton and Bristol v Leicester reminded us of a club trend which has existed all year – top-class attacking rugby played on the edge and allied to a never say die attitude. Both Harlequins and Leicester have developed a real culture and true leadership in a short space of time which is some achievement. It reminds me of Bath at our peak when we just would not accept defeat and played full-on until the very last minute.

Saracens are in the hunt of course but are finding that an extra gear is required and I am fascinated to see how they will stretch the boundaries as what was good enough before is not enough now. The same goes for Exeter Chiefs who need to get a little angry with themselves. Simmons will have to develop a Dombrandt-style flexibility because his close-quarter try poaching is all well and good but this also understates his open play ability. He needs to get in support of Slade and Hogg and play his wide game.

Without being too technical, the Harlequins support running lines are a thing of beauty and it makes Dombrandt an irresistible selection for England. I am uncertain if Eddie Jones will really embrace this because he likes to lead the debate and Tom Curry is also exceptional and can release players through gaps. It is the biggest risk for England’s hopes but he has no choice. Whoever said, ‘Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war’ it applies here. He must truly unshackle the chains, already half-off post the Springbok victory, and let his newly ambitious clubs feed the beast of an England team which should only get better.

There is quality everywhere (don’t you just love London Irish) but intermittent for some and the recent contests involving the likes of Sale, Bristol and Wasps show that they are some way behind this new standard being set. As for Bath, that brings us back to the theme of culture and leadership. For next week.

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