The English Premiership is Quickly Becoming the Best Domestic Rugby League in the World
Rugby: If you’re an “International Only” rugby fan, you’re about to miss out on a real treat.
Another Premiership season is about to kick-off, and at this point the eventual winner is anyone’s guess. Saracens will be favourites, of course. Back-to-back European champions, and boasting arguably England’s three best players in Owen Farrell, Billy Vunipola and the mercurial Maro Itoje, but they will be without a large chunk of their squad when international season roles around. Can Champions Exeter retain their crown? Will Leicester, a team who appear to be in perpetual turmoil, yet always seem to do well, take a first title since 2013? Or can Wasps continue their meteoric rise since their move to Coventry and bring home the league title they used to dominate in the early noughties?
One thing that’s for sure is that not enough people will be watching. That is not to say domestic rugby is in decline, far from it. More spectators went to games last year then any season previous, and BT have reported a steady increase in viewership. But, for the casual fan, the ones who will be roaring along their team when the Six Nations roles around in February, English domestic rugby still seems amateurish, something the top stars do to kill time between donning the red rose.
The Premiership isn’t quite Test Match quality, but it isn’t far off. Saracens would give any international team a run for their money, including the mighty All Blacks, and the chasing pack play some mesmerising rugby. The quality has never been better, and the league has never been more competitive. 10 of the 12 teams have play-off aspirations this season, and the other two or more than capable of beating anyone on their day, making every game competitive. There are no more gimmes, making it the most competitive domestic league in the world.
More tries were scored in the Premiership last season than ever before, and teams are reacting to recent laws regarding player safety by playing expansive, New Zealand style rugby. There is no better example I can think of as advert for the Premiership than last season’s final. A free-flowing and explosive back-and-forth contest that saw Exeter, a team who have only been in the top league for six seasons, defeat Wasps in extra time to complete a fairytale sporting story comparable to Leicester City’s unlikely Premier League victory or Japan’s toppling of South Africa at the 2015 RWC. It was an emotionally draining match for every spectator, and was indicative of the quality the fans have come to expect from the league.
There are also plenty of things that are exclusive to the Premiership. International superstars demonstrating their greatness, such as the feet of South African magician Willie La Roux, the flawed genius of Australian fly-half James O’Conner and the turnover prowess of Springbok Francois Louw. Christian Wade, overlooked for England for size reasons, scores roughly 756 tries a season. Welsh superstars Taulupe Falateu, George North and Jamie Roberts choose to play their domestic rugby in England, and the Premiership has more Lions tourists than any other league.
Other domestic leagues offer something a little different. The Pro14 will be very interesting this year with added South African teams, as well as legends of European rugby like Leinster, Glasgow and Ospreys. But the league will still be hampered by the mismatch nature of some of its fixtures. With all due respect to the Italian teams, they are out of their depth, and this somewhat lessens the prestige of the league. The Top 14 in France, the richest domestic league, suffers from similar symptoms to Premier League football, with the table separated by the haves and have-nots. The influx of retiring southern hemisphere players has been a huge detriment to the national team as well. And the Super 15’s, or 18’s or whatever it is called now, despite having some great rugby, has become synonymous with New Zealand dominance and the struggles of South Africa and Australia to develop new players.
Which leaves the Premiership. Questions will continue to rage in the ‘club-vs-country’ debate, and the RFU do have genuine grievances with the power the clubs now hold. But, as they say, the proof is in the pudding, and the increased pay and time spent with the players the clubs are now afforded has bred a new generation of England players, supported by international colleagues, that are fast becoming world-beaters.
So, if you’re a casual rugby fan and you have the option to watch either a boring international football game this weekend or the likes of Bath vs Leicester, Gloucester vs Exeter or Saracens vs Northampton, give the rugby a chance. You will not be disappointed.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter @jonathannhatch