After what for me has been a truly wonderful summer of sport, with cricket and rugby league galore I was in for another great day at the Aviva Premiership Rugby Season Launch. I had no idea at all what to expect but made sure I got the torturous journey out of the way to arrive in plenty of time. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to take the group photo so didn’t get involved, but it was interesting listening to Paul Morgan explain who was going to stand where and in front of what. It must be a logistical nightmare to make the sure the event runs smoothly! The first port of call was the ‘Live Room’ area where there were a number of people waiting for the main event. That main event was led by Craig Doyle of BT Sport fame; he’s a very engaging presenter and clearly loves his rugby. We were treated to a summary of the 2013-14 season; a season which saw 575 tries scored. With the final being contested by the two top scorers Northampton Saints with 77 and Saracens with 72. That final was a nail biter with more than a hint of controversy; as a Saracens fan it was a heartbreaker too, but clearly a wonderful occasion for the Saints fans.
Quentin Smith, Chairman of Premiership Rugby was introduced by Craig Doyle; his presentation highlighted how the competition is going form strength to strength. A new 3 year deal has been signed with Aviva and in addition to the existing partners – Land Rover, Green Flag, Guinness and Gilbert 2 further partners Trivento and Citizen added to an already impressive list. The television partnership with BT Sport and ITV have seen a growth in those watching the game; with 7.88 million watching live on BT Sport and 434,000 watching the ITV Highlights. The live audience has also grown with an average of 358,000 people attending a game every weekend! The game is also doing great work via its community programmes, engaging in particular with disadvantaged young people in this country as well as in Brazil.
Once Quentin had imparted all the positive news around Premiership Rugby Justin Burnell; Head Coach at London Welsh the new boys in the league and Jim Mallinder; Director of Rugby at champions Northampton Saints took to the stage. Craig posed the questions asking Justin about his plethora of new signings; 26 at the latest count. The most high profile of those signings has to be Piri Weepu, Justin’s response to questions about Piri sent a ripple of laughter round the room; in his words – ‘he’s a funny little fella’ Justin had expected him to have a seriousness about him as he is the ultimate professional but he’s clearly a joy to have around! Needless to say Craig’s assertion that Piri has ‘a magnificent backside’ caused further hilarity! In contrast to London Welsh the Champions didn’t hit the transfer market other than to sign Joel Hodgson from the Falcons. With an exciting Academy set up with several exciting prospects including Jims’ son Harry 2 players have been promoted to the 1st team set up. Jim explained that the salary cap prevents clubs from splashing out season after season; it does work as a safety net in that respect.
With Leinster amongst their pre-season rivals Saints have had a competitive build up, they face the Newport Gwent Dragons in Wales as their final test before the season start. A match with Gloucester Rugby kicks off the season proper for Saints, Jim and Justin felt that Gloucester could be the surprise package, the quality has always been evident and to a degree they’ll be an unknown quantity this season. London Welsh have a weekend off before their 1st game in the top flight; Justin’s wish for his team is that they’re able to compete and do themselves proud. He explained that they’ll have respect for all of the teams in the league, it was clear that neither man can see an easy game in the season. It was great to hear Justin talk about having watched Leicester Tigers play Saints last season, and how much he’d enjoyed the ‘banter’ between the coaches. He’d also been at the HAC ground for Saracens’ game against the Ospreys; he was impressed with the young players playing their part. Clearly a fan as well as a coach! He had an amusing tale about his squad bumping into the Women’s World Cup winners; they had their photos taken with the medals, quite a boost for the lady’s game I imagine.
It was great to see the ease between Jim and Justin; I somehow feel there won’t be the same level of ‘banter’ between the 2 men when their teams meet! Once the main event was over we moved into the more informal part of the day. All of the captains and their Head Coaches or Director of Rugby depending on the club were waiting and available for questions. Being a newbie to an extent I stood back and watched proceedings, it was clear there were some it was going to be very hard to get anywhere near. I did however spot Jim Mallinder on his own and having sat next to him as he waited to go on stage I knew he’d be good to talk to. I wanted to know what his emotions were as he waited for the TMO decision at the end of the Premiership Final. From his position he was uncertain as is he thought then and still does today that the replays weren’t clear cut. We spoke about that fact that it was unprecedented for a try that had been given to then be denied by the TMO; but both agreed that what rugby needs are accurate decisions. Jim agreed with me that often the TMO is over used and that the man on the spot should have more faith in his own judgement. As Jim is from Halifax a brief mention of rugby league and the differences between the 2 games was mentioned. There is clearly a real difference between the speed of the 2 codes, with the scrum being a major factor. But also a real difference in the physiques of the players; largely due to the shape and size of some of those who are specialists in the art of scrummaging. There was an irony in his comments that the big boys in the forwards were a good counter for backs such as the ‘nippy little wingers’. Jim did see the funny side of that comment – not too many ‘little wingers’ on display at Saints!
It seemed rude not to take the opportunity to talk to a man who’s often been the ‘villain of the piece’ for me – Dylan Hartley. I again wanted to know what emotions were going through his mind while the TMO watched the replay at the final. As a man literally right on the spot he saw the ball touched down; his heart was in his mouth. His emotion? Relief the word he used, but when pushed it was clear to see how he must have been feeling – ‘emotional, it was horrible’ and he still ‘gets nervous thinking about it’. Dylan was asked about the England tour which literally followed on the next day. He was on a real high from the final but in common with the other Saints players not really able to celebrate the win as he was virtually straight on a plane. It was frustrating not to get the win but he felt that England can take confidence from their performances. He felt that fitness was an issue for England as the ball is in play for around 10 minutes longer during an international. That could be a key factor with the World Cup on the horizon!
Things were starting to wind down but I managed a quick chat with Stuart Hooper the Bath captain. I asked him how the team had enjoyed training with Wigan and what they’d learnt from the experience. The key difference was in the way Wigan attacked in a fairly flat line, it moved the Bath team out of their comfort zone as they moved the ball quickly. It was inevitable that Sam Burgess was mentioned; Stuart is excited about having the league man join the squad. In particular because of what he knows of Sam’s credentials as a man; he’s very driven and keen to succeed. I believe Sam is going to the club that can help him do that in rugby union. He may well be our Sonny Bill Williams! We spoke a little about the summer break and how the 4 weeks away from the club work. Stuart explained that it will be different for different players, for him it was his 16th pre-season. After a long hard season he needed a bit of a rest, keeping fit is essential but for Stuart that didn’t involve hours in the gym; rather he went about it in a different way, swimming for example or running about with his children. His view of being Bath captain was refreshing – he feels privileged and is looking forward to the new season; not ‘smashing’ anyone for 8 weeks means the start takes a lot of drive; from what I saw of the Bath squad I think that drive will be evident from the start! I believe they’ll push on from last season and be in the running for a top 4 slot.
And so the 18th (Aviva) Premiership Rugby Season was launched; I can see no ‘easy’ games for any team, I’m sure we’ll see some shock results, some coach ‘banter’ and some brilliant rugby! I for one can’t wait until September 5th!