Gods and Monsters
September 4, 2013
A big season looms for Quins' Chris Robshaw, Northampton's Dylan Hartley and George North and Newcastle boss Dean Richards © Getty Images
The new Premiership season brings many challenges - most notably the quest to come out on top in what has been labelled the toughest club competition in the world. But for some this campaign will be about a lot more than proving they are the best side in England.
While some will be trying to make their name, others will be out to restore theirs - most notably Northampton captain Dylan Hartley. The fiery hooker went from Saint to sinner during his side's Premiership final defeat to Leicester back in May with his ill-advised verbal outburst in the direction of referee Wayne Barnes - although he insists it was aimed at his Tigers counterpart Tom Youngs - resulting in a red card. His season continued to implode with a subsequent 11-week ban ending his British & Irish Lions tour before it had begun and also jeopardising his future in an England shirt.
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Hartley's hopes of rehabilitating his reputation and proving he is not the monster his actions would have you believe were handed a significant boost by Northampton director of rugby Jim Mallinder who has retained him as skipper but it is the Saints' recent recruitment drive that looks destined to provide him and his side with greater impetus. The signing of Wales winger George North - who assumed rugby God-like status with an epic contribution to the Lions' cause this summer - and England prop and fellow Lions Alex Corbisiero look inspired while Samoa scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'i will also no doubt help to fill the sizeable void left by crowd favourites such as prop powerhouses Soane Tonga'uiha and Brian Mujati.
Another leading light faces a similar battle to remind us of their true quality - not due to his recent actions but rather his inactivity. Harlequins flanker Chris Robshaw suffered a series of body blows as last season drew to a close. First he was unable to inspire England to victory in their Six Nations decider against Wales and then he failed to earn selection for the Lions before Quins came up some way short in their defence of the Premiership crown. England coach Stuart Lancaster then suggested a rest was in order and he sat out the summer tour of Argentina where Gloucester-bound Matt Kvesic offered further evidence of his talents as an alternative openside.
For Robshaw and many others, this weekend's big kick off represents the real start of their build-up to the eagerly-anticipated 2015 Rugby World Cup on home soil and while his enforced absence this summer may still grate a little, in time he - and his body - will be grateful for the break. This season will be followed by an epic Test series against the All Blacks in New Zealand after which there will be a brief respite before the start of the next season that will run all the way through to the World Cup finale and beyond.
Hartley, and maybe even Robshaw, could perhaps learn a thing or two about restoring reputations from Newcastle director of rugby Dean Richards who is back on the Premiership stage having emerged from the mire. The former Quins boss was banished into the rugby wilderness in the wake of the shocking Bloodgate scandal but having served a lengthy ban he returned to what he does best - getting the best out of rugby players - and orchestrated the Falcons' Championship-winning campaign that was rewarded with an invite to re-join the elite.
The return of Newcastle to the top flight, having been relegated the season before last, is crucial for Premiership chiefs determined to maintain a strong presence in the north of the country and for the sport in general as it looks to engage the nation ahead of the arrival of the Rugby World Cup in 2015. The assurance offered by Richards, a Premiership and Heineken Cup winner during his time with Leicester, is not the only reason for Falcons fans to enter the season full of hope and their rivals to fear the newcomers. They re-enter the top-flight infinitely better prepared than London Welsh were this time last year. The protracted legal wrangle over Welsh's promotion - and Newcastle's relegation - left the Exiles playing catch-up in terms of recruitment and planning and they never really recovered with their stint in the top flight coming to an end after just one season.
Richards' desperately disappointing crime took place on the Heineken Cup stage and the battle for European supremacy is destined once again to provide an alarming and intriguing narrative to run alongside that of the Premiership. But rather than on-field excellence and misdemeanours, the focus will fall on the boardroom as stakeholders come under increasing pressure to hammer out an amicable resolution to the debate about the future shape of the competition.
The row over the format, qualification criteria and revenue share has already rumbled on for over a year - far too long for those fearing the end of a competition that has thrilled fans around the globe for the last 18 years. But the fact that such a frustrating dialogue is in danger of over-shadowing the entire domestic season and harming the reputation of all stakeholders is a problem of their own making.
Premiership Rugby's headline-grabbing four-year £152m broadcast rights deal with BT Sport - that kicks in this season - promises to provide a huge cash injection into the clubs' coffers but also sparked the row due to its claim to include rights to the European games played by English rugby's leading clubs. This is disputed by European rugby chiefs who insist their Premiership counterparts do not have the power to sell the rights to those games - which will not take place if a new 'accord' is not reached in the coming months.
Premiership sides will enter this season's battle not knowing what they need to do to qualify for European rugby next season but any likely change in qualification is unlikely to impact on them as much as their Celtic and Italian counterparts. And the transfer of North from PRO12 side the Scarlets to the Premiership could be seen as a minor victory in the battle to shape the future of the game and a reminder of the financial power offered by the English and French clubs.
A less controversial element of the BT Sport tie-up is a series of technical innovations that aim to offer armchair fans a 'unique' perspective including a fascinating promise to bring you 'kicking tee cam', player and coach interviews during the game and dressing room cameras. Some teams are not prepared to play ball and they, and fans in general, will be happy for them to do their talking on the pitch.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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