It may well not have registered as one of the most important games of rugby on the world stage. But for me Sale Sharks v Leicester Tigers, tucked away on an insignificant Friday night in Stockport and in front of just 8,673 hardy spectators, could prove to be one of the most significant results of the English domestic season.
The Tigers, perennial aristocrats of England, have been fighting in unknown territory since the start of the Aviva Premiership league campaign. With 12 players away on World Cup duty since back in the summer this Rolls Royce of a rugby club has been performing like a Trabant. The Tigers have failed to roar and found themselves down in 11th place in the 12-team Premiership with a miserable record of one win and five losses after the first six games. It’s of great credit to everyone at the club that panic buttons have remained resolutely unpressed. But Head Coach Richard Cockerill, as feisty a coach as ever he was a player (remember his nose-to-nose with Norm Hewitt when facing up to a New Zealand haka at Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium back in 1997?), has no doubt suffered a few sleepless nights. This is a man, remember, who isn’t used to losing and certainly doesn’t like it.
Well Cockers will be feeling a whole lot better this week. Sure, the Tigers are still only in 10th place. But their 34-13 away win against the Sharks – a far gnarlier outfit this season under Head Coach Steve Diamond – was a pretty clear signal that a strengthened Tigers are launching an immediate revival.
It’s hardly surprising that Leicester have languished thus far. What team wouldn’t badly miss the muscle and beef of Martin Castrogiovanni, Dan Cole and Marcos Ayerza? The craft and guile and subtlety of Toby Flood and Ben Youngs? The intelligence and athleticism of Tom Croft? The pie-eating of Thomas Waldrom? It’s no exaggeration to say that Leicester have been decimated by the World Cup. And even after this precious victory they still sit a massive 18 points behind Aviva Premiership leaders Harlequins.
The road back to the top will be long and it will be hard, but surely now is the time to look at how major international rugby tournaments are handled and whether there isn’t a better way, a fairer way, of doing things from all points of view. For as it stands the simple facts are these. The more quality players you sign as a pro club, the worse off you stand to be for large parts of your domestic campaign. The Tigers have a squad that’s packed full of international players, but when a league fixture list sticks its head in the sand and pretends that there’s no such thing as an international calendar, then the effects are there for all to see. The Aviva Premiership league table as it stands right now is in no way a true reflection of the respective capabilities of the clubs taking part, because so far what we’ve seen is certain clubs’ first teams playing against certain other clubs’ second teams.
Now your reaction to this might just be a little bit ‘So what?’ After all, since when has professional rugby (or even amateur rugby for that matter) ever been a fair playing field? Certain clubs have always had more money, better facilities, more luck with injuries etc than certain other clubs. And that’s clearly true. But I think we all accept those parameters as falling within the traditional boundaries of the sporting landscape. When league campaigns are blithely set in motion with half of its star performers unavailable for considerable periods of time, then as far as I’m concerned we’re starting to move into completely different territory altogether.
Of course I understand the motivation for this. There’s money that needs to be made during this period. You can’t simply shut down a domestic league whenever a World Cup or a Six Nations comes along. But has there been any serious thought given to alternatives? Should there be a different scoring system put in place for closed periods? Fewer points for a win? More bonus points available, perhaps? Because to skew an entire league season because almost a third of that campaign is played out under crazy, unrealistic circumstances just seems plain wrong. Will the team that wins the title this season really feel they’ve earned it? Well they might contest that the playoff system has already given sides the chance to win the league not by being the most consistent, but by being the best on a couple of particular days. And there’s an argument that says that’s not exactly fair either. And I’ll be the first to admit that the whole topic is a difficult, confusing and thorny issue. But when any club loses the best half of its squad for a third of a season and we’re still expected to look at a league table as a fair reflection of ability, well I for one think there’s something amiss. Answers on a postcard please...