The future's bright, the future's yellow
September 4, 2010
ESPN's pitchside reporter Sarra Elgan is lost amidst the glare of the Twickenham branding © Getty Images
The colour yellow does not lend itself to a vast spectrum of complimentary terms. Far from it. Think yellow-belly, yellow-livered, yellow journalism or even just plain yellow. But if new Premiership sponsors Aviva have their way, English rugby's top flight will be shaking up the established lexicon.
You may have guessed that yellow was the colour of the day at Twickenham as the London Double Header played out. There was no escaping it - be it the blanket advertising reminding everyone that the Premiership has a new name or the five times the referee went to his pocket - but one thing for sure was that there was nothing remotely cowardly about the commitment shown by London Irish, Saracens, London Wasps and Harlequins in their first outings of the new season. It was bruising to say the least.
A bumper crowd of 75,112 flocked to south west London riding a wave of optimism after the feast of attacking rugby that graced the second half of last season before Leicester's dramatic triumph over Saracens in the showpiece finale. The off-season offered little respite to the sport's leading figures but gave coaches time to really get to grips with the game-changing interpretation of the tackle area.
As a result expectation, fuelled by some dazzling rugby in this year's Tri-Nations, was high that the Premiership giants would kick on again this term and ensure English rugby continued to boast the X-Factor. Sadly, the battle for bragging rights in the nation's capital could not conjure the same kind of drama that played out the last time a Premiership ball - that is also now largely yellow - was kicked in anger. And it was never really going to if we are honest.
Early season matches are often littered with ring rust as players switch from the pre-season mode to the intensity of competition. Add into the mix the referees' desire to lay down the law and set the tone for the season - the two games generated a momentum-sapping 52 penalties - and you do not have a recipe for classic rugby. We at least had some willing combatants.
Saracens returned to Twickenham looking to exorcise the ghosts of that fateful day in May - this time with boss Brendan Venter on the touchline and not banished to his front room as he was that day. But they failed in that quest and were again left empty-handed - not the ideal start to a season that had promised so much. A gruelling pre-season may have helped with conditioning as was evident as they weathered a ferocious early storm from the Exiles with some resolute defence but errors abounded - this was not the slick attacking force that swept past all-comers - almost - a few short months ago.
Hooker Schalk Brits showed glimpses of the eye-catching form that brought him so many plaudits last term and centre pairing Brad Barritt and Adam Powell impressed, as did No.8 Ernst Joubert, but they laboured at times and felt the wrath of the referee's whistle too often. The biggest disappointment must be the performance of No.10 Alex Goode. The rising star was tasked with filling the boots of Glen Jackson at fly-half, having been groomed for the role last year, but failed to find the fleet-footed form that made him such an attractive proposition last season. The 22-year-old failed to impose himself on the game, was switched back to fullback and picked up a yellow card to cap a forgettable day.
Irish had been quite bullish in the build-up to the clash and were good to their word. Free of the pressures of repeating a final appearance the previous season, the Exiles looked re-born with the back three of Delon Armitage, Topsy Ojo and Sailosi Tagicakibau the main beneficiaries. But new recruit Daniel Bowden looks the business and filling the void left by the recently-retired Mike Catt does not seem such a problem. A bonus-point win against one of your would-be title rivals is certainly the way to signal your intent to rejoin the big time but only time will tell if Irish can maintain this kind of form and book a return to Twickenham a long way down the road.
If six tries, four yellow cards and a come-from-behind victory wasn't enough for those fans kick-starting their own seasons, then they only needed to wait a matter of minutes for another dose of Premiership drama.
Wasps and Harlequins served up another tense affair dominated by muscle but lit up by the occasional piece of magic. A contest dominated by the boot, errors once again played their part with Wasps particularly guilty of lacking the composure that should have arguably won them the game. Two points in the bag is better than none but the question marks remain over their performance and centre Dom Waldouck may lose some sleep over the one that got away in the first half.
On the plus side, Riki Flutey looked like he had never been away in his first appearance back in black after a forgettable season in France. He showed enough guile and pace to suggest No.10 may be his long-term home, which may give England manager Martin Johnson some food for thought. In addition, captain Tom Rees threatened a return to the international reckoning with an assured display now he too is free from injury woe and new signing Andy Powell landed in the Premiership with a fitting bang.
Mike Catt, Austin Healey and Ben Kay analyse the latest action
Quins were also looking to emerge from the doldrums following a disappointing year, which played out like a hangover in the wake of the 'Bloodgate' scandal - not helped by journalists who continue to refer back to their annus horribilis. But this was a re-energised Quins side fresh from a summer under the tuition of new boss Conor O'Shea, who took charge towards the end of last season. Fly-half Nick Evans called the shots but had able support at scrum-half from a lively Danny Care while No.8 Nick Easter rampaged in the loose.
The game lost its shape midway through the second half and bordered on the boring but built to a fitting crescendo amid the flying debris from a certain element of the crowd, who by this stage in proceedings had seen enough rugby and certainly had enough to drink. But there were to be no heroics from Evans for once - with his last gasp drop goal attempt failing to find its target. A draw was a fitting result.
A record crowd for the traditional season curtain-raiser underlines the fact that the Premiership is an increasingly powerful brand - to the point that the double header may soon be redundant. Quins and Wasps attracted a bigger crowd to Twickenham on their own last season and that trend is set to continue this year, giving further cause for optimism at Premiership Rugby and Aviva. The future's bright. The future's yellow.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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