A blueprint for a Premiership Rugby reboot, from ditching ‘snooze-fest’ kicking to Magic Weekends

It is not difficult to feel a mood of doom and gloom about the Premiership in England.

An opening weekend disrupted by outside events, clubs losing money hand over fist, no uplift in sight from the involvement of CVC, severe doubt over whether Worcester will continue, fixtures clashing with England matches, mystification as to why Harlequins’ fly-half Marcus Smith sits out Saturday’s big clash with London rivals Saracens, due to a rest period related to his summer tour with England, whereas his opposite number Owen Farrell, who went on the same tour, starts for Sarries (it’s a long story but partly explained by Farrell missing five months last season).

In a spirit of defiance and positivity, in decided to consult Mark Evans, who spent a combined 31 years with Saracens as player and coach and Harlequins as coach and chief executive, to suggest ways of rebooting the competition, and attracting valuable new support – a few weeks before Evans heads to Fiji to start his new job in Super Rugby.

in: Schedule-wise, the concussion issue is looming large, so fewer matches may be forced on all concerned, and Pat Lam at Bristol is not alone in talking about a 10-team league; I even heard one suggestion of amalgamating the Premiership and URC so you could have three 10-team divisions, the top one of which would be close to international level. But let’s just talk Premiership.

More pious Rugby Union

Evans: Yes, and the Premiership schedule, the narrative of the competition, is too often interrupted. People need to know what they are watching, and when, so it becomes an appointment to view.

We already know there is at least one match a day across the weekend, which is good, although Northampton’s postponement on Friday night due to so-called player welfare was ludicrous.

We need more of the product on free-to-air television, and all of the matches televised, and don’t fall for the old Brian Clough argument that punters will stop turning up. As for promotion and relegation, nobody will ever convince me that relegation helps grow the sport one iota.

in: How about ways of making the game itself attractive to more people?

Evans: My wife and daughters got into rugby thanks to my career, but they have given up watching because there are way too many stoppages; it doesn’t hold people’s attention.

There has been progress with scrums, we can leave that well alone, but we still have line-outs taking ages to see, plus this interminable TMO obsession with accuracy. The game gets bitty, and it’s very hard for the commentators to build up a sense of excitement.

One of the reasons football is such a good TV sport is that it doesn’t stop very much. I understand American Football is the exception, but they’ve taken it to the nth degree and gone play by play. AFL doesn’t stop much. The NRL hardly stops at all – they get very cross when their game stops.

in: You don’t want rugby union to lose its points of difference?

Evans: Certainly not. But the key here is to create a little more fatigue, to create a better spectacle. Very often you see a fractured second half, due to substitutions. I don’t understand why we can’t have rolling subs. Football’s procedures for injury are miles better than ours.

Okay, we have to stop if you’ve dislocated your kneecap, and of course if you’ve been knocked out. But not for a hand injury, when you can be treated on the side. And as for stopping for a change of contact lens…! If it means one uncontested scrum, get on with it. Goalline dropouts have become a big time-waster. And why not take all conversions in front of the posts?

in: Do we need conversions at all?

Evans: I’m not sure you do. I’m not sure, either, why we stop playing for a knock-on, if it’s just a spill then the player re-gathers the ball. We have to keep running, so gaps appear. I’d cut down the box kick.

Leicester were criticized for kick tennis last week, but I don’t blame them. I blame the administrators for allowing the game to get into such a state that kick tennis is a good way of winning. Leicester didn’t have Wiese, Chessum and Montoya, they lacked big ball carriers, so they kicked. Unfortunately, that turns into a snooze-fest unless the other team takes risks.

in: There are plenty of followers of the England team, but if you look on the RFU website, there’s hardly anything about the Premiership.

Evans: Cross promotion is noticeably lacking. The Premiership needs to put more money in the middle. You don’t get McLaren in charge of Formula One’s marketing. I was not a big fan of the CVC deal. I didn’t think it was needed. You get your own business plan in order and go from there.

in: Any other innovations? Harlequins and Saracens, among others, have tried ways of entertaining their fans, and gone to different stadiums, and even different countries when Sarries were without a ground.

Evans: Well, it is tricky when clubs are haemorrhaging money, but there are possibilities. We haven’t got the opening weekend right. I withdrew Quins from the London double-header because it didn’t work, financially.

To shamelessly nick an idea from NRL, who nicked it from Super League, there is the ‘magic weekend’, a round of six matches in one place. In Brisbane it has been an unbelievable success, it’s like a gathering of the club tribes. You can ask cities to bid for it.

Maybe Tottenham one year, St James’ Park the next, then Aston Villa. You can work out a P&L so everybody makes a bit of money. Some of our arenas aren’t great. We have five clubs in the West Country, but their biggest stadium is Ashton Gate. Why not play a Premiership game alongside a URC game in the Principality Stadium? Put a Bristol v Bath derby there, alongside Cardiff v Scarlets.

The URC and the Premiership are sharing offices, so I’d be really surprised if they’re not talking about that. We could we play in the Aviva Stadium, alongside Leinster v Munster. That feels like plenty to be going on with.

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