Loose Pass: A great weekend awaits but there’s still room for improvement

Lawrence Nolan

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the great semi-final weekend and some thoughts on how to do it better…

What a weekend!

June used to be a time when most club fans would either be booking the TV set at weird hours of Saturday mornings to watch tours down under or merely folding scarves away and looking ruefully at the overgrown lawns.

Really energetic fans might be contemplating a couple more Sevens tournaments – either playing or enjoying one of those all-day spectator stints, replete with phone calls back home at about 3.30 pm: “you’d never believe it, but we got to the next round and now we might get to the final… yeah, I’ll be home after that, no don’t worry I’ll get a taxi…”

What June was not, not ever before, was the onset of the climax to the full club season. But here we are, Wimbledon and Ascot around the corner and a cricket Test series in full swing, and on top of it all, there’s – obviously – the Premiership and United Rugby Championship playoff weekends. The Top 14 too for the night owls (both games kick off at 21.00 local time), while the early birds can get the Super Rugby in as well.

In fact, on Saturday you could feasibly see in the day watching the Blues take on the Brumbies, go grab a spot of lunch somewhere before settling in and watching either Saracens taking on Harlequins or the Stormers hosting Ulster, back that up with an east Midlands derby and then sink lower into the chair in the evening watching this year’s European champions visit last year’s in the Top 14 playoff round. Not a bad way to spend a June weekend…

It’s been a bit of a slog of a season for all concerned and the spectre of the head injury lawsuit is not going away. But just right now at this moment, it is a good time to be a rugby fan. The quality of some of the recent games has been, on average, excellent, with some truly exceptional matches in there as well.

As South African teams have acclimatised to Europe (and they’ve done so a lot better than the Europeans heading down there) the United Rugby Championship has seen a sharp improvement from its predecessor; a potential Stormers v Leinster final might be an all-time classic. This year’s Premiership has – at the top end at least – been compelling at times and there’s a semi-final line-up full of intrigue this weekend coming, not least with the sub-plot of Saracens fighting their way back to the top two years after relegation. The Top 14 has been as relentless as ever but the quality has improved and a final regular season weekend which featured jeopardy all over the place was compelling viewing (more on that in a moment). Super Rugby has been harder hit by Covid than most, but it has provided plenty of thrilling moments.

The Tests will come, by the end of which, some of the clubs will be back in pre-season. The nagging issues of player welfare and rest periods are still very much there to be discussed. But this weekend is gong to be a cracker wherever you look: just make sure you have enough screens!

And yet improvements can be made

Mouthwatering though the Premiership semi-finals are set to be, watching the Top 14 final day multiplex coverage on Sunday night brought home a lot of truths about comparing the Premiership with its French counterpart.

The final Premiership day was a bit of a damp squib. There was no relegation to worry about for reasons which we have gone into here on a number of occasions and still don’t find palatable. It also meant that a quarter of the teams had little to play for.

Meanwhile Saracens did themselves and their tarnished image absolutely no favours whatsoever by fielding an unashamedly second-string team away at Gloucester. It ultimately didn’t make a difference as Northampton did not fluff their lines, but Newcastle did at least put out their strongest team for a game that meant little to them. It’s not a good look for a league when a team can field as weak a team as that on the final weekend without consequence.

Which is probably why the coverage of it all was a bit blah on Saturday; the only real jeopardy concerned who might make it into Europe and who not.

Contrast to the Top 14, for whom Canal+ did an admirable job of cutting from one game to the next (each cut preceded by a unique little tinkling fanfare that I can still hear in my dreams) and keeping all involved on the edge of their seats as the final-day drama played itself out, all the way up to Toby Arnold’s extraordinary non-try for Lyon in minute 84.

This year’s Premiership has been a good competition, but it also gets very fragmented, with games spread out across weekends from Friday to Sunday and across different TV channels. Not that the Top 14 doesn’t have its own varied TV slots and Sunday night rugby would not go down well in the UK, but the multiplex format for the bulk of the games on Saturday has become compelling viewing for fans.

England has football to compete with, but were it to find its own spot in the weekend calendar, Premiership rugby could benefit hugely from similar coverage, not least if it stopped ring-fencing itself and introduced some real jeopardy into its format…

READ MORE: Top 14: Toulon miss out while Castres top the table