Stage set for Premiership battle
August 24, 2011
The Aviva Premiership will kick off next month in the shadow of the Rugby World Cup © Getty Images
When Aviva Premiership rugby returns in England in the first weekend in September, no club or coach will face a greater challenge than Worcester Warriors and Richard Hill.
Both are returning to the Premiership after periods of absence. Hill took over at Worcester a year ago, charged with ensuring that the Warriors' Championship sabbatical would last only a single season. Success means that he is back at a level he left two and a half years ago when he departed from relegation-bound Bristol.
The task facing him is a familiar one, keeping a promoted club afloat in a fiercely competitive league. And there are echoes of the manner in which he once sustained under-funded Bristol at top level. "You're told that you need Premiership experience to survive, but not all experience is good," he told ESPNscrum at the official launch of the new season. "If players have had bad experiences at this level it can be a disadvantage. We tried to learn from our time in the Championship and to pick up the best players at that level - seven of our 11 new players come from the Championship. That way you get fresh talent and something of the innocence and excitement of youth, with players who are inspired rather than intimidated by a challenge."
At the same time he has acquired some veterans - notably scrum-half Shaun Perry, a key member of his Bristol teams, and former England forward Chris Jones. "We've gone for people who are good characters with a work ethic - real warriors to match our club name."
If staying up is the initial objective, Hill is looking beyond to a level at which his club can build for the long-term. "The highest position in six Premiership seasons was eighth, which meant that it was always a struggle - and you're always looking simply to the next match rather than the longer-term. Eventually this is going to be a very powerful club. It is stable, has possibly the best financial model of any club, pulls in 12,000 for every match and has plans to expand to 20,000.
"If we can get into mid-table we'd have the resources to invest and push on to the next level, which we didn't have at Bristol. But we've got to get out of the bottom four and into the middle group of clubs in the Premiership first."
Should anyone think that a little over-optimistic, Hill can point to an example showing it can be done. "Exeter bucked the trend last year, by not simply staying up but doing very well. They didn't have much Premiership experience, but they had good personnel on and off the field, intelligent coaching from Rob Baxter and a good spirit."
Good spirit was also a feature of the rotating Saracens squads who claimed their first ever championship last season. Pleasure at that success is still evident when skipper Steve Borthwick speaks of the reward for club stalwarts - officials, players and fans - who had worked long and hard for only a limited return for years before.
The challenge, of course, is to sustain that level. Success can bring a sense of anticlimax, but coach Mark McCall insists, "I've had no indications of that in pre-season. Our players seem pretty motivated for the year to come."
Sarries have seven World Cup calls, but McCall emphasises, "We want as many of our players as possible to play for their countries." Newcomers include veterans Joe Maddock and Charlie Hodgson, expected to play a mentoring role for bright young players as well as performing on the pitch.
McCall points out that the decision to sign Hodgson came before Owen Farrell's spectacular breakthrough at outside-half last season and admits that competition for the No.10 shirt 'will be an interesting dynamic', but clearly has no second thoughts. "Owen had a great six months, but is still only 19. Charlie has been a superb player for the last decade in the Premiership, so be brings a lot of intellectual property. Owen will learn a great deal from him."
All of which fits with an overall philosophy that he sums up as, "We did something right last season, so you don't need to go reinventing the wheel. You keep the core of what you are doing, but at the same time you mustn't stand still - you need to go on getting better."
That's a message that could echo across London's western suburbs to the Acton training ground of former champions Wasps, who finished ninth last season - prompting changes that included the arrival of new head coach Dai Young from Cardiff.
Young, switching to the Premiership after nine years of Celtic League rugby, says, "They clearly did things right at Wasps - you don't win two Heineken Cups for nothing - and they were ahead of the game four or five years ago, but there was a sense that things had gone on being done the same way ever since.
"The last couple of years hadn't gone as well as the club would have hoped and change was needed, although you don't want to lose the underlying ethos. We've got 13 new players, and the ones who had been around over the previous two years are keen to make things happen as well."
For Young there is the fulfilment of a long-held ambition to coach in England. "I'm enjoying it. There are great players, great teams and high standards in the Celtic League, but my impression is that there is a greater intensity week-in, week-out in the Premiership because there it is much tougher to qualify for Europe and you also have relegation."
Young may be the league's coaching rookie, but he has no doubt that he speaks for most of his counterparts in his basic aspiration for the season. "You want to get into the Heineken. That's got to be the aim. It might be a bit of a stretch for us this year, but we'll certainly be going for it."
But if change is the keynote at Wasps, some things in the Premiership remain the same. The competition would certainly not be the same without the apparently indestructible Sir Ian McGeechan who begins yet another campaign in charge of Bath.
Sir Ian reaches statutory retirement age on October 30 and has less to prove than just about anyone else in the British game, but keeps on coming back for more. To ask why is irresistible. "There's always something new and different - new faces, different circumstances, new challenges - and that's what keeps me excited and wanting to come back".
Not for the first time, Sir Ian speaks not only for himself, but for an entire game as it anticipates a new season.
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